If we strip away the historical resonance and director Marco Bellocchio’s visual flourishes, the 2009 Italian film Vincere becomes a fairly routine — although agreeably tawdry — marital melodrama.
An idealistic, impressionable young woman named Ida (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) meets a charismatic political orator named Benito (Filippo Timi) at a rally, they fall in love and live together, and she bears his son. But when they meet again after a wartime period of separation, Ida is shocked to learn that Benito already had a wife and family before they had their romantic fling. Now, all of a sudden, Benito maintains he doesn’t know Ida, backed up by the loud protestations of his wife, Rachele (Michaela Cescon).
To make matters worse, Benito, who has attained power in the government, manages to have Ida committed to a mental institution in order to hush her embarrassing paternity claims. The more she demands to be heard, the crazier she is in the eyes of her keepers. Meanwhile, Ida and Benito’s son, Benito Albino, aka Benitino (played by Fabrizio Costella), is legally adopted by one of his father’s deputies. This effectively shuts him up, at least until he gets old enough to start asking questions. All the while, the seduced and abandoned Ida still carries a torch for Benito and refuses to give up on the idea of their undying love for each other. It haunts her for the rest of her sad life. And she never sees her son again.
But before we get out our handkerchiefs, take note of the fact that the “Benito” we’re talking about is Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), Fascist dictator of Italy and WWII co-conspirator of Hitler and the Nazi Germans. And the fact that veteran writer-director Bellocchio (The Wedding Director, Fists in the Pocket) is just as fascinated with taking the emotional temperature of Italy in the Mussolini years as he is with the travails of Ida Dalser at the hands of her beloved Il Duce.
It would be possible to know almost nothing about Mussolini or Italian fascism and still be hypnotized by Bellocchio’s extravagant visuals, which turn Italy in the early decades of the 20th century into a kaleidoscopic carnival of violently clashing extremes. The director (he wrote the screenplay with Daniela Ceselli) sets up the opportunistic Mussolini as a sort of rock star of agit-prop speechifying, first as a Socialist flamboyantly challenging the deity to strike him dead, and later as a book-burning, black-shirted Fascist in love with death-head symbolism. Ida melts under his penetrating gaze, as does the rest of the helter-skelter country. Fistfights break out at movie theaters. Mussolini champions the Futurist art movement. Newsreels and bold, modernist-style headlines fill the air as events march forward in rhythmic montage.
Heartbroken Ida refuses to join the parade, and suffers for it. But there’s a limit to how much we’re willing to suffer along with her. Bellocchio and his leading lady paint Ida in bold, expressionistic strokes. No matter how many times we’ve seen characters like her wrongfully condemned to the horrors of primitive mental therapy, it’s a shock to see her imprisoned by nuns and literally climbing the walls, her life destroyed by her former lover. As she scatters her pathetic little hand-scrawled messages in front of uncaring schoolboys, Bellocchio rests the entire film on Ida’s trembling shoulders — it’s probably too much weight for actor Mezzogiorno to bear. Ida refuses to quit pressing her claim, even after a kindly psychiatrist takes her aside and counsels her to play it cool: “Do you think Fascism will last forever?” Her turmoil aptly peaks during a hospital screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, exactly the wrong movie to show a woman whose son has been torn away from her. Any resemblance to The Snake Pit or Frances is unfortunate but unavoidable.
Vincere, then, presents a problem. On one hand, it’s a strident, bitter, dark-toned portrait of the cruel excesses of Italian Fascism as reflected on those closest to Mussolini, told in broad, arguably operatic, almost hallucinatory terms with music and cinematography — by Carlo Crivelli and Daniele Ciprì — to match. On the other, it’s the story of a wronged woman’s torments, an elevated weepy with a political filter. Go for the bitter history lesson, but don’t forget to bring a Kleenex.
How different are 21st-century Italian Americans from 1930s Italians? Fast-forward about seventy years and travel across the Atlantic to the charming community of City Island, New York, for a comic look-see into another marital braciole.
Instead of a ruthless black-shirt, the patriarch of the Rizzo clan is Vince (Andy Garcia), a mildly discombobulated correctional officer (“not a prison guard“) who lives with his office worker wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies), daughter Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido, Andy’s real-life daughter), and son Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) in the titular locale, a former fishing village just off the Bronx, where Long Island Sound becomes Eastchester Bay. They interact noisily and mostly cheat on themselves instead of on each other.
Writer-director Raymond De Felitta’s sweet little comedy is all about putting up appearances as opposed to following your muse. Vince secretly yearns to be a tough-guy movie actor. Joyce is bored with Vince and thus is immediately intrigued with Tony (Steven Strait), the handsome young freed prisoner Vince unaccountably brings home with him one day. Vivian secretly pole-dances at a local strip club — her parents think she’s in college. Vince Jr. secretly trolls the Web for fat women and asks a chubby girl for a date. Both Vince Sr. and Joyce sneak cigarettes — they’ve sworn to each other to quit smoking. And so on. Light chuckles all around.
De Felitta compensates for the sitcom familiarity of all this with graceful comic touches, like what happens when Vince makes up an excuse and goes into Manhattan for acting classes — Alan Arkin plays his teacher and Emily Mortimer is a sympathetic classsmate. Garcia, too often a brooding presence in his films, is a welcome sight as amiable working stiff Vince, and Margulies gets her sexy coyote on with the mysterious Tony — up to a point. The others all get what they need, which is the same as what they want. City Island has a warm, realistic, lived-in feel to it, helped along by its specificity. It’s not just Anytown, USA, it’s City Island, where the clam diggers and the mussel suckers meet the family circus.