Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Agenda-Setting Media, Cultural Relevance, and the Awesome Power of 'Vincere'

In Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chompsky and the Media (1992), Chompsky refers to the New York Times as "the agenda-setting media," and one of the most interesting facts I learned from the documentary is that the A.P. wire service announces the afternoon before what tomorrow's headline will be on New York Times, so that local media can follow suit.

Similarly, for a movie--particularly an independent movie--to be considered culturally relevant, it has to open in New York and Los Angeles, thus making it eligible for the Oscars, and be reviewed in major publications like the Times. For instance, Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right (2010) was undoubtedly the indie film event of the summer. It had a relatively wide release, garnered glowing reviews from most major reviewers, and the three leads (Annette Benning, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo) are all likely to be nominated for Academy Awards. Thus, an aesthetically bland liberal message picture is made to seem more culturally relevant than more adventurous indie movies, not to mention every avant-garde film, which happen to fly under the radar of large national publications (to say nothing of the Oscar race).

Now let me just say that I think that Manohla Dargis, Stephen Holden, and A.O. Scott are all doing a bang-up job over at the Times, and they do review a lot of small independent and foreign films. And I can't really fault Dargis for liking The Kids Are All Right more than I did. My point is simply that for a film to be considered culturally relevant--that is, to be considered worthy of being discussed in the national media--it needs to be relatively new (there's usually a gap of a few months or more between a film's festival premiere and its commercial release stateside) and playing on a certain number of screens. And the newer a film is, and the more screens it's playing on, the more relevant it seems. Lee Yoon-ki's My Dear Enemy (2008), which I belatedly caught up with in Montreal last spring, was reviewed positively in both the Times and the Village Voice, but was ignored by everyone else when it turned up in the States last fall, and Anat Zuria's documentary Black Bus (2010) still has yet to open there (perhaps because it was dismissed by a reviewer in Variety). Therefore, regardless of their individual merits, those films are going to seem less relevant to the national discourse on film than Cholodenko's film.

As somebody who writes about film strictly as an amateur (i.e., I don't go to press screenings and nobody's sending me DVD screeners come Oscar time), and who lives in a part of the country that doesn't get a lot of foreign or independent movies, I'm almost always playing catchup in writing about particular films. I prefer to write about the movies I see on my occasional trips to bigger cities like Montreal, because they're still relatively new (Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop [2010], which I saw in May, didn't open in Halifax until August); or at festivals prior to their getting a commercial release (the Atlantic Film Festival is just around the corner, so that's something I have to look forward to). When I do write about older movies, I prefer it to be à propos of a cinémathèque screening, as when I saw Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948) last spring, or at the very least, somehow related to something in theatres at the moment. For instance, although I didn't make the connection explicit, my short essay on Alain Resnais' L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) could be seen as a sort of followup to my piece on Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010), which was easily the most discussed, most culturally relevant wide release movie of the summer to the point that I was somewhat reluctant to write about it after so many others had already done so. Although I'm not some one who rushes out to see the latest blockbuster on opening weekend simply to be in the loop (accordingly, it took me a week or so to catch up with Inception), the idea is that I want to participate in a larger discussion about cinema.

So when I finally caught up with Marco Bellocchio's Vincere (2009), I thought I should write something about it for this blog, considering that it moved me like no film has in years (no new film, anyway). But at the same time, writing about it seemed vaguely futile, as if having come too late to the party. The film premiered in competition at Cannes more than a year ago; was praised by major reviewers, including Dargis and Roger Ebert; and is now on DVD (which is how I saw it). It's technically eligible for this year's Oscars, but Giovanna Mezzogiorno is about as likely to be nominated for best actress (despite being vastly more deserving, in my opinion, than Benning) as the United States is to elect a socialist president. (Maddow-Stewart 2012!)

The film is about the life of Ida Dalser (Mezzogiorno), a mistress and the possible first wife of Benito Mussolini (played as a young man by Filippo Timi), and her son, Benito Albino (played as an adult by Timi). The story begins in Milan in 1907, when the young Mussolini, Sr. was a socialist, who was both anti-clerical and anti-war. In the opening sequence, Ida sees him speak at a debate where he challenges god to strike him dead in the next five minutes, and when the time elapses declares that god doesn't exist, and falls instantly in love with him. Barred from entering politics herself (at one point, she's turned away from a socialist party meeting for being a woman), Ida, a passionate socialist, pins all her hopes on Mussolini, selling her business and all her possessions so that he can start the newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia.

The film shows Mussolini as a man lacking the slightest political conviction, willing to sell out any principle in his quest for power. There's an audacious, unforgettable sequence in the film in which Mussolini is awoken in the middle of the night by visions of his own greatness, and as if in a trance, steps out on to a balcony overlooking an empty courtyard while completely nude. A jeep drives by announcing the start of World War I, and Mussolini becomes an ardent supporter of the war, which he says (but probably doesn't believe) will be the war to end all wars. So anti-clerical is the young Mussolini that he tells Ida, "Whenever I see a priest, I feel like washing my hands," but after coming to power, he married his other mistress, Rachele Guidi (Michela Cescon), and in 1929 founded the Papal state. When he and Ida have sex, he never looks her in the eye, as if his true object of desire lay beyond her.

Inevitably, Mussolini casts Ida aside for the sake of his political career. Ida, however, persists in loving him--or rather, the man he used to be. (When Idea sees him in newsreels, Bellocchio uses footage of the real Mussolini as a means of distinguishing between the young socialist and the fascist dictator.) And when Ida refuses to go away quietly, she's locked up in an asylum, and Benito Albino (played as a boy by Fabrizio Costella) is placed in a boarding school. (To underline his isolation, he's only shown there during school vacations when all the other students are at home.) Before this happens, however, there is a curious sequence, possibly a dream, in which Ida and Mussolini marry, and she would insist until her death in 1938 that she was the first and legitimate wife of Mussolini, although a closing title informs us that the marriage certificate was never found.

The film contains two sequences of extraordinary power. After spending time in one institution presided over by bitchy nuns, Ida's transfered to one where she's cared for by a sympathetic anti-fascist doctor (Carrado Invernizzi). If the doctor is in love with her, his feelings never rise to the level of action because Ida is still hopelessly deluded about Mussolini. (I'm reminded of a line from Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves [1996]: "Love is a powerful sickness.") In one sequence, the institution has a movie night for the patients, and Bellocchio cuts between a scene from Charles Chaplin's The Kid (1921), Ida's reactions to it in close-up, and the doctor looking at Ida.

Later, Benito Albino, now a young man, sees his uncle, Riccardo (Fausto Russo Alesi, an actor who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Jon Lovitz), whom he hasn't seen since he was sent to the boarding school. Benito Albino follows him into a movie theatre with a date, and hands Riccardo a letter for his mother, which the latter is able to sneak into the asylum. (This of course never happened; the real Benito Albino was told that his mother was dead, and was adopted by a fascist family.) After handing him the letter, Benito Albino leans back and puts his arm around his date, and though out of focus and in the background, it's clearly Mezzogiorno he puts his arm around. After reading the letter, a sympathetic nun helps Ida to escape. When she arrives at Riccardo's, she's told that Benito Albino was informed and is on his way, but curiously, we never see their reunion, assuming it takes place. This is fine by me actually, as to have such a scene in the film would be a lie.

The most extraordinary moment in the whole film comes when Ida is led out of the house to the car taking her back to the asylum, where an angry crowd has gathered in protest--the only time we see any overt popular support for Ida's plight. As the car pulls away, we see out the window some of her supporters running alongside the car (echoing the scene in which Benito Albino was removed from Riccardo's home), and as the car passes a slogan painted on a wall ("Mussolini is always right"), Idea, in the foreground right, turns to face the camera directly. The film is boldly and shamelessly manipulative, and I mean that as a compliment.

With its onscreen text, liberal use of archival footage (beginning with the Dziga Vertov-inspired credit sequence), and the desaturated, highly textured cinematography by Daniele Ciprì, the film self-consciously harks back to the silent cinema, and the story is unabashedly melodramatic. Indeed, despite its basis in fact, one could read the film as a sort of fairy tale about an ambiguous mother whose masochistic devotion to a cruel father makes her implicit in the suffering of her child; imagine a less kinky version of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986). Wildly audacious and immensely moving, it makes cinema seem exciting again.

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