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Bellocchio Plays Politics With Film

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Gianranco Mura/IFC Films

Filmmaker Marco Bellocchio has been tackling some of the thorniest aspects of the Italian national psyche since his 1965 debut "Fists in the Pocket." He has yet to show signs of slowing down, crafting vital cinema throughout the past two decades. Through the story of an atheist son coming to terms with his mother's candidacy for sainthood, "My Mother's Smile" energized Mr. Bellochio's recurring themes of the church and the nuclear family. "Good Morning, Night" explored the Red Brigade's 1978 kidnap and assassination of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. "The Wedding Director" lampooned a national cinema unable to reclaim its past neorealist glory. His latest, "Vincere," takes on none other than the infamous fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

"What I was interested in was telling the story of how Mussolini was transformed from an atheist, anti-clergy, anti-anarchy revolutionary to an interventionist, nationalist and fascist revolutionary, not thoroughly believing in this ideology but depending on it for political advantage," Mr. Bellocchio said, speaking through an interpreter. "Though having been a staunch atheist, he gradually tried to sympathize and compromise with the church. He married in church so as to be politically correct. And he actually reached an agreement with the Catholic Church, which would then seal his power as a dictator. This is something that I wished to describe — this passage, this transformation. It's a small story that was the backdrop of a big story."

Indeed, the 70-year-old Mr. Bellocchio has meditated on Italian societal mores through cinematic allegories. Through the years, he has moved away thematically from the personal and toward the more political. But even when handling such historical figures as Mussolini and Moro, Mr. Bellocchio eschews the orthodox biopic approach, preferring to employ these prominent figures as supporting characters.

"In both cases, I took a risk representing two men in two different moments, showing a different side of each that was unknown to the public," he said. "There's always a risk of a carnivore-like, ridiculous characterization of these historical icons. With 'Good Morning, Night,' I wanted to see Moro as a prisoner, and I wanted to see him in his humblest intimacy, in a small two-by-four cell on a bed reading or thinking — not as a politician who gave ideological speeches, but the intimate, unknown side of the character. And what was interesting in 'Good Morning, Night' is that while he was imprisoned, he was able to reveal through his words in his letters to his family and colleagues a certain fragility and humanity that he always tried to hide in his political and public life. So it is something that attracted me when I decided to tell the story of this character."

"Vincere" similarly explores a private side of Mussolini that only came to light in 2005, after publication of Marco Zani's "Mussolini's Wife" and Alfredo Pieroni's "The Secret Son of Il Duce" as well as the state broadcaster RAI's airing of Fabrizio Laurenti and Gianfranco Norelli's documentary "Mussolini's Secret" — all of which would serve as inspiration for "Vincere." The film tells the story of Mussolini's first wife, Ida Dalser, and firstborn, Benito Albino, neither of whom Mussolini would recognize once he ascended to power. When Dalser refused to relent, she wound up in a mental institution.

"Recent publications and documentary films on Ida Dalser have certainly added important elements in the life of Mussolini: a side of Mussolini we did not know, a choice — perhaps not a personal one, but definitely a political one — to put this woman in an institution and detain her there," Mr. Bellocchio said. "It was a choice that was considered strange and very uncommon for the political tradition in Italy at the time. That was something that reflected more of the Soviet regime or Nazi Germany."

He explained that although the population in Italy's mental institutions indeed doubled during the 1930s, the fascist regime did not target its opposition. Rather, it primarily sought to maintain a façade of social tranquility by ridding the streets of those who disturbed the peace.

One of Mr. Bellocchio's stylistic touches that help shape the allegorical quality of his films is the use of surrealism. For example, Moro actually walked free from his captors during the climactic assassination scene in "Good Morning, Night," even though minutes later the film showed archival footage from Moro's funeral. But with "Vincere," Mr. Bellocchio's key stylistic influence is futurism, especially in his use of graphics and intertitles borrowed from Soviet films of the era.

"There is an element in the relationship between Ida Dalser and Mussolini that's very common in surrealism - especially in [Luis] Buñuel, you'd find that. I would see that as a surreal element also," Mr. Bellocchio said. "The real peculiar thing in this film in terms of artistic reference is the reference to futurism, futurism that was born before the intervention, the change of political lines of Mussolini. But that was definitely one of the artistic movements that was favored by Mussolini. So he sort of absorbed the aesthetic of futurism."

Mr. Bellocchio gives lengthy and thoughtful responses to questions throughout the interview, affirming the conviction and passion that have gone into each film. But he does have a target audience in mind that perhaps excludes Americans. He hasn't been accompanying his recent films to the States. In fact, he isn’t even sure if his previous film, "The Wedding Director," has received a release here. It was a rare treat for local cinephiles last September when he made a rare Stateside appearance at the New York Film Festival.

As perhaps further evidence of his tepid interest in the American market, Mr. Bellocchio aborted this interview two-thirds of the way through after receiving a call from Antonio Monda, a New York University professor who would be hosting a talk with him on campus that evening. Although the talk would not begin for several hours, Mr. Monda had arrived in the lobby of the Park Lane Hotel and wanted to take Mr. Bellocchio out to lunch. They invited this reporter to the talk at NYU, but Mr. Bellocchio was unenthusiastic about resuming the interview when reached later. At his agent's prompting, he begrudgingly humored this reporter once more. Even so, he put just as much thought into every answer.

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