400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
Making the rounds right now is a truly satisfying foreign language film that -- surprise -- was not among the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language film. It comes from the veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio, who made his feature debut with Fists in the Pocket all the way back in 1965; various writers such as David Thomson and Pauline Kael agreed that it was one of the great directorial debuts of all time. It told the story of one of the screen's most screwed-up dysfunctional families. In the 45 years since, Bellocchio, hasn't made much of a ripple here in the U.S., though his films My Mother's Smile (2002) and Good Morning, Night (2003) -- which I did not see -- received mostly good reviews.
His new movie Vincere (2 screens) returns to the idea of dysfunctional families, though this one happens to involve Benito Mussolini. Normally this kind of movie screams out warnings: it's a historical drama and a biopic. It's going to be very faithful to research and fact and very full of its own pomp and circumstance. Except for the centerpiece performance, these kinds of movies rarely come to life. But lo and behold, as I was watching Vincere, I realized that it was really starting to pop. And it does so because Bellocchio visually illustrates the emotions behind the story, rather than slavishly re-creating them in moving pictures with costumes, dialogue and actors.
Another reason Vincere succeeds is that the story isn't about Mussolini (played by Filippo Timi), but about his onetime lover and wife Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). Ida becomes enchanted by the young Mussolini and dedicates herself to him, selling all her belongings so that he can start his fascist newspaper. They marry and have a child, but after the start of the First World War, Mussolini moves on to other women and leaves Ida and her child behind. Unable to prove that she was ever married, her story begins to sound like the ravings of a madwoman, and so she's thrown in an asylum. She soon stops fighting to see Mussolini again and begins fighting to see her son again.
This could make a pretty dreary movie, but Bellocchio cooks up one astonishing image after another, starting with a sex scene that perfectly illustrates the couple's true relationship. Ida caresses her lover and repeatedly chants "I love you," while he thrusts away on top of her, steely, beady eyes gazing at some faraway place and not saying a word. In another amazing scene, Mussolini lies wounded, in a bed in a makeshift hospital set up in a church. A silent movie about Jesus (Christus, from 1916) is being projected on the church's ceiling so that the men can watch from their beds. Later, Ida tries to send some letters from the asylum, climbs the iron bars and tosses them out into the snowy night; the letters fluttering down like extra-large chunks of snow while Ida remains framed against the center of the bars.
With this new masterpiece Bellocchio has had the audacity to make an actual movie. And though I've only seen two of his films, made 45 years apart, they both pulse with the same kind of vital energy. The first is on Criterion DVD and the second is currently making the rounds through art house theaters nationwide.