When we first meet Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi), he’s in a crowded room of people making a case against the belief in God. Taking a watch, he challenges the Almighty to strike him down in the next five minutes in order to prove his existence. After the five tense minutes have passed, Mussolini announces “Time’s up. God doesn’t exist.” A mini-riot ensues, men and women yelling, pushing, shoving, and grabbing at his suit, but he looks perfectly at home in the chaos. Later, in a movie theater, as silent news reels of Italy at war with Austria flicker on a screen in front of him, Mussolini, now with his young fiancé, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) at his side, stirs up another near riot by cheering for Italy’s aggression. A lone pianist continues to play a jaunty tune as Mussolini and his comrades combat with neutrality socialists in the crowd, their violence in silhouette against the grainy footage of a real war playing behind them.
If these images strike you as particularly theatrical, you aren’t far off the mark. Marco Bellocchio’s document of Dalser, Mussolini’s first wife and their lone son, Benito Albino (as an adult, also played by Timi), as he first abandons them and later has Dalser committed shortly after marrying his long-time mistress, intriguingly plays off of the tortured history of his subjects with an assortment of dramatic flourishes, including time jumps, screaming headline banners (“GUERRA! GUERRA” flashes on the screen shortly after Italy declares war), and flash-like illumination of his characters as in a formal portrait. The effect is powerful, if not somewhat discombobulating. As Dalser is heartbreakingly kept from her son in an asylum, Mussolini, once a steadfast, if strident, supporter of socialism, morphs into the bald, near hysteric Il Duce, committing Italy to further acts of aggression at their neighbors, until eventually betting on the wrong side of Hitler’s fallen Axis.
Bellocchio’s almost operatic sensibility well fits Il Duce’s melodramatic temperament. Mussolini’s domination of the women in his life and their ensuing idolatry of him — Dalser, for one, sells everything she owns in order to give the young Mussolini enough money to help found his newspaper — is an apt analogy for how he ultimately treated his homeland. Before his downfall, he had, in his twenty years as Prime Minister, also declared himself “Head of Government,” “First Marshall,” and, finally, “Founder of the Empire.” The country became his mistress, as it were, existing solely to serve his limitless ego and boundless ambition before finally turning on him.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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