By Guy Flatley
Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michela Cescon, Piergiorgio Bellocchio, Corrado Invernizzi, Paolo Pierobon, Bruno Cariello, Francesca Picozza (Directed by Marco Bellocchio; Written by Marco Bellocchio and Daniela Ceselli; IFC Films)
Until now, the closest that popular cinema has come to portraying Benito Mussolini, Italy’s most vile and egomaniacal living fascist until his countrymen hung him out to die at the end of World War II, was an Oscar-nominated performance by Jack Oakie in “The Great Dictator,” Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 classic tragicomedy.
At long last, you can give your treasured memory of the buffoonish Oakie a rest. We now have a vivid, strictly not-for-laughs, rechanneling of Il Duce by the scarily mesmerizing Filippo Timi under the direction of Marco Bellocchio, doing his finest work since such sixties and seventies triumphs as “Fists in His Pocket,” “China Is Near” and “In the Name of the Father.” Sharing camera time with Timi—including a prolonged, throbbing session of naked lovemaking that steams just this side of porn—is the stunning Giovanna Mezzogiorno, cast as Ida Dalser, the first wife of Mussolini and the mother of little Benito, the dictator’s son, who was born in 1915, before the outbreak of World War I.
Mussolini was in fact not a total novice when it came to playing poppa, having sired a daughter five years earlier by his mistress, Rachele Guidi. This quasi-familial relationship, however, was kept top secret from Ida. So, naturally, when the two women finally meet face to face, the encounter is rocked by explosive fury. The hysteria-fueled scene plays out in a military hospital where the shrewish Rachele, now officially Mrs. Mussolini, is tending her husband, a hero wounded on the battlefield and obviously destined for postwar power and glory. As Rachele puts it, she wants nothing more than to “pull the ears off” Ida, and an incensed Mussolini makes certain the wife he refuses to acknowledge is immediately banished from the hospital and denied all future access to him and his valued colleagues and companions.
But, even after calming down, Ida has no intention of dropping her just claim that she is Mussolini’s only true wife, and that her son is his legal heir. The monstrous physical and emotional punishment inflicted upon both mother and son by Il Duce—from merciless depravations to beatings and lengthy stays in madhouses ruled by icy-veined nuns and unscrupulous shrinks to death and unceremonious burial in common mass graves—is juxtaposed with historic newsreel footage and staged re-enactments that document Mussolini’s ascent to national leadership and his fall into disgrace and grotesque demise at the hands of vengeful adversaries.
With cinematic, sometimes operatic intensity and grace, Bellocchio weaves it all together: Il Duce’s atheistic, socialistic, royalty-bashing youth (he had an urge to puke when the thought of a priest crossed his mind, and he could scarcely wait for the day of the last pope and the last king to arrive); his peace-is-defeat and war-is-victory epiphany; and, finally, his passionate embrace of the formerly despised papacy in order to strengthen his political stranglehold on the population of his battered homeland.
Bellochio’s pen and camera are as fluent and mighty as ever, as are his grasp of 20th-century history and his quest for universal justice. And, in Giovanna Mezzogiorno, as his ravishing, courageous, if slightly mad, heroine, and Filippo Mimi, as his macho, magnetic, subtly insecure villain, the veteran director has given us a pair of inspired performers sure to reign as superstars of the 21st century.