Over last weekend, the film Vincere, which tells the story of a love affair between Benito Mussolini and a woman named Ida Dalser, went into wider release within the United States. A passionate portrayal of a love that led to her own destruction, Vincere also raises several interesting questions about how mediums like film and television can be used for political purposes, some not always so benevolent or benign. From Italy, filmmaker Marco Bellocchio took a few minutes to discuss the film, Italian politics and the power of the moving image with Fabio Periera.
What was the inspiration for making Vincere?
The thing that really touched me and impressed me was the private component of the story. The idea of this woman that I would define an absolute woman--a woman of such determination that it even pushes her to suicide in the end. It's a woman that devotes herself completely in an absolute, overwhelming way to the man that she loves. And she sacrifices everything for him--her social position, her wealth, her material standing--just to devote all of herself for him. And the tragic fact is that (Benito) Mussolini on the other hand, did care about her but she had a secondary role in his life. She definitely came after his political ambitions. So, what he wanted to become. At one point of the movie, he says clearly that he realized that he could have become a mediocre writer or musician, but he perceived that he could become the top politician around, and that's what he wanted to do. So, there's a clash in the movie between the absolute passion that Ida Dalser feels versus the secondary passion that Mussolini feels.
Some would say, though, that the story of Dalser's relationship and marriage to Mussolini is unconfirmed.
Actually, the story itself was a historical fact. It's confirmed in everything. Yes, in the movie, we may have amplified or added on to things, but everything is historically documented. The one component that is not is the marriage--the legal marriage that took place between the two of them. That paper was never found. However, the fact that Ida Dalser had given all she owned to support Mussolini's newspaper and that they had a son--that's a historical fact that's documented. But when Mussolini started his political career, Ida Dalser was, by no means the right woman for him for what he wanted to do. By this, I mean that in this political design that he had--which was very conservative--the right woman for him was his official wife, Rachelle Guidi who was a very old-fashioned woman: she was very naïve, she was illiterate, she was from his hometown, she spoke his dialect. So she was the perfect incarnation of the idea of a wife and a mother of a family that was in line with the fascist, conservative backward, nationalistic ideas that Mussolini wanted to promote in his political career. She was the perfect figure to promote an idea that Mussolini was bringing to the light for the people. But all the facts in the film are completely documented. The only thing that was not certain--and in fact in the movie the way we show it, it's not clear if it's a dream or a reality--is the signing of the marriage contract itself.
As a filmmaker who approaches a project around a figure as controversial as Mussolini, what goes through your mind as you create that project? And why Ida Dalser's story?
I think the historical aspect of the story is extremely interesting because I chose to tell a passionate story set at a time of deep social revolution. These deep changes in society were not only that, but there were also changes at the artistic level. In fact, in the film, futurism has a great role. And futurism was an artistic movement that was primarily Italian at the time and Mussolini actually supported that, and the futurist artists all supported fascism later on. Also, it's right in those years that cinema became important and a mass phenomenon. And Mussolini was indeed the first politician in Italy who (understood) the strategic importance of a poltician's image. In this sense, we can draw parallels with prime minister Silvio Berlusconi today. They both understood the importance of a politician to promote his own image through cinema, through photography, through radio in his case--and that's what Berlusconi does through television today. So, I thought it was interesting to start with a private story and use that a s a waay to describe the story of Italy at the etime. It was interesting to do that by using the role of the actor (Filipo Timi) and using the actual footage from the time with the true Mussolini that Ida Dalser keeps seeing all over the place. And at the time that shows how cinema was the main mean of communication that Mussolini used to display his image as publicity. Also, Filipo Timi also represents Mussolini's son. I think these issues are all really important issues and they provide the fate, the form of my movie and its style.
You mention Berlusconi as a parallel to your film. Do you see any other parallels between your film and the state of politics today?
When I created the film, I did not make a film about Mussolini with the aim of talking about Berlusconi. This was something that was observed at a later stage and it's a connection that was brought up to a greater extent by foreign film critics and journalists--and to a lesser extent in Italy. What I see is the great power of image in contemporary society and what I understood is that basically this new role of image was born with Mussolini. Mussolini understood that he was able to impose himself and conquer Italian society thanks to the strength of image. And Italy nowadays is not a dictatorship. You can call it an authoritarian democracy but it's still ademocracy. Whereas Mussolini imposed his image to the poeple and at the time, there was no other image--just his own. There was nothing to compare and contrast with. This idea of talking directly to the people and this idea of a direct relationship with great masses of people, he described that as if it was a blessing that the people gave him--as if he were directly appointed by the people. That component is something that is very similar between Mussolini and Berlusconi, even though there are significant differences between the two. But Berlusconi does mention the people all the time, and the fact that the majority of the Italian people support him, he uses that as a backing to give him the right to pass whatever kinds of measures he wants to pass--sidestepping parliamentary democracy.
From your perspective as a filmmaker, how do you think a medium like film helps to shape a society's discussion of political subjects?
I think that cinema is an art and as an art, it's not stronger than ideas. But what it can do is allow people to understand what the idea of its author is. In this respect, it's TV that has the lion's share because cinema, when it's done well, is for a limited viewership--it's almost an aristocracy among viewers. As I said, I strongly believe that we are in a society where image is everything, but when I started making movies, political power was a lot more preoccupied with cinema than it is now. It had a much more controlling attitude in terms of censorship, whereas now political power actually keeps under control TV, and not cinema, because it is TV that is the top means to condition people and to communicate. So, political power actually aims not only controlling and limiting expression on TV, and they no longer focus on cinema.