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Crazy in love: Mezzogiorno in Vincere.

Unconquered

By Laura Leon

Vincere

Directed by Marco Bellocchio

 

Watching Vincere, it’s impos-sible to relax and just let the images and dialogue roll over you. No, one is forced to witness astonishing acts of depravity and obsession, and personal degradation and martyrdom, often while being bombarded by an operatic soundtrack. Screeching captions like “Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!” come at you like a shot off of Albert Pujols’ bat.

One can’t help but wonder, is this for real? Based on the true story of the pre-Il Duce Benito Mussolini’s fateful relationship with Ida Dalser and his eventual rise thereof, it certainly is, even if director Marco Bellocchio keeps some details to himself and allows us the opportunity to wonder about others.

The movie opens with Mussolini (Filippo Timi) mesmerizing an assembled crowd with his assertion that, if God truly exists, he would strike the then-socialist-atheist political agitator dead within five minutes. As the clock ticks, the camera scans to the back of the room, where young Ida (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) watches in rapt, feline fascination. “Time’s up! God does not exist!” proclaims Mussolini, to which the crowd erupts in rage and confusion. Later, with soldiers hot on his trail, he takes refuge behind a stone wall, where he happens to find Ida, and the two give way to a passionate kiss before he disappears in the night.

Flash forward seven years (the movie dips back and forth in time, to a sometimes maddening extent), and Ida, now a boutique owner, spies Mussolini heading up a protest march. As the event dissolves into a melee, she runs out and slips him a note and an embrace. Later, he comes back to her, and the resulting coupling is a true act a la the title, which is Italian for “to win by vanquishing.” Ida’s love for the rising politician is incandescent. She sells all her belongings to provide him the capital he needs to begin a new political newspaper. She joyfully has his namesake, a baby he formally recognized in January 1916, and then is basically shunted to the corner of history—except for the fact that she won’t shut up.

As the movie progresses, we see less of Timi’s Mussolini, and more of the easy-to-mock figurehead recognizable to anyone who has seen an old Hollywood newsreel. Ida is left alone and impoverished. She writes letters to anyone in authority begging for assistance in compelling Mussolini to honor the marriage vows she swears were exchanged; in an interesting historical mystery, said documentation went missing concomitant with Il Duce’s rise to power. Meanwhile, he married another, with whom he had five children. Ida’s son is taken from her, his upbringing entrusted to one of Mussolini’s minions, and she is sent to a mental asylum. For years she implores the nuns to help her escape to see her child. While at times one can’t help but think, hey, Ida, get over the jerk, one is also held hostage by the very real drama of a lone woman fighting for her scrap of humanity. At the same time, Ida’s constant protestations of her truth (even a sympathetic psychiatrist advises her to pretend to make nice, in order to see her son again) evidence a myopia, akin to that of Mussolini, to a greater reality.

Vincere owes much to the sweeping melodramas of D.W. Griffith and later David O. Selznick. Indeed, Mezzogiorno channels Mary Pickford and Helen Hayes (this is a compliment) in her fight to retain some semblance of humanity. Mezzogiorno’s is a tricky role, as her obstinate struggle for legitimacy veers on the sociopathic, but she somehow manages to keep us on Ida’s side. Similarly, Timi manages to make us believe that one of the world’s worst tyrants may have once possessed a magnetism that we ourselves may have fallen sway to. As he makes love to Ida for the first time, he seems to be intellectually worlds away, pondering dominance over something greater; post-coitus, he wanders naked to the balcony, where he envisions thousands of adoring Italians. Clearly, his eye is on a much different prize than that of Ida; Vincere bears witness to the eventual downfall of both visions.

Tarantino Babies

Kick-Ass

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

The comic book on which the movie Kick-Ass is based was as much, or more, a satire as it was a superhero story. Co-creators Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. devised the most pedestrian origin story imaginable for a superhero: Lonely teen fanboy simply decides to become a costumed vigilante. No lighting flash in the lab, no radioactive infection, no genetic mutation, no masochistic rituals of training and no great tragedy to avenge. Just an average comic-book reader—lonely, awkward, a bit earnest and a lot naďve—seeking to transform and distinguish himself. The introduction of that character into something very closely resembling the “real world” resulted in fun and funny commentary on the excesses and oddities of the superheroic world as more commonly presented.

Over the course of the original eight issues, Kick-Ass combined ironic, generic self-awareness and graphic action for an effect that might be called comic-book Quentin. As Tarantino plays daredevil with the conventions of film, Millar and Romita goofed with the stock material of the superhero form: Without spoiling the series for anyone who wants to backtrack to the books, it must be said that the storyline is absolutely riveted to and dependent upon the concept of fanboy identification with the medium as a force unto itself. Kick-Ass, the comic, is a comic about the love of comics.

For a variety of reasons—finances, no doubt, not least among them—that conceptual tenet has been mitigated in the film. Instead, screenwriter Jane Goldman and screenwriter-director Matthew Vaughn have chosen to adopt a more “filmic” approach. A significant character’s backstory has been wholly reversed, to be more in keeping with the traditional motivations of action dramas. And there’s the rub. For me, anyway.

There is much to like about Kick-Ass, the movie. Aaron Johnson as our aspiring hero, Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass, is tolerable on his own, and better than that in the company of his loser friends, Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters). The dynamic among these three is a high point, more truly representing the half-smart banter and idiocy of teen male interaction than most movies. Though rarely laugh-out-loud funny, Kick-Ass has lots of amusing moments. And the action is, not to belabor a comparison, highly indebted to Tarantino, and those he ably boosts from—which is a compliment.

But while I want to praise the filmmakers for honoring the medium in which they were working and not being slavishly devoted to the source material, something was lacking in the onscreen Kick-Ass. As a comic, it was a bit insidery, true. But without that connection to its original spirit, and with the changes made to—one assumes—broaden audiences, something essential is lost. What’s left is an intensely violent—if fun—film starring surprisingly young people. What’s left feels something like a Tarantino production of Bugsy Malone. With capes.

—John Rodat


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