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From Italy

Stanley Kauffmann on Films

IFC Films

Mid-August Lunch
Zeitgeist Films

Here, remarkably and remarkable, is a new film by Marco Bellocchio, a survivor of the Italian post-World War II directing galaxy. His first two films, Fist in His Pocket (1965) and China Is Near (1967), announced the arrival of a talented troublemaker. His subject was the bourgeois family in relation to a changing society--“the connection between the family and the wider political

universe,” the film historian Peter Bondanella said. Bellocchio has flared through the years prolifically, varying occasionally but in general lunging at conventional acceptances. His style could indeed be synoptically described as a series of lunges: some of them miss the mark, but--at least for the works of his that I have seen--they are rarely weak.

Politics and family are, in an extreme sense, his themes again in Vincere. (This Italian infinitive means “to win”: it was a Fascist slogan.) The politics here is the story of Mussolini’s rise, the family is one that he once acknowledged and then ignored. We see him first as a socialist firebrand in 1914, so we may expect that we are going to watch his conversion to Fascism and his rise to dictatorship. These matters certainly do figure in the film, but the real subject is his relation to a young woman named Ida Dalser whom he meets at a socialist meeting and who falls overwhelmingly in love with him. As the story flows on, Mussolini recedes personally to the background: Ida’s subsequent life and that of their son, also named Benito, take over. (The father was named Benito because his own father admired Benito Juárez, the Mexican liberator.)

In fact, Bellocchio and his co-screenwriter Daniela Ceselli actually skimp on much of Mussolini’s career. His conversion to Fascism takes place offscreen: we see that it happened, but we don’t experience it. The film’s interest is in the generally neglected persons in this history, Ida and her child--even though Mussolini admits that he is the father. In 1915 he marries Rachele, his formal publicized wife who accompanies him to power, and Ida cannot even produce papers to prove her claim that she and Mussolini have been married. (Bellocchio includes a shot of Ida and Benito’s church ceremony, less as proof of her truth than as evidence of her possible fantasy.)

Most of the film then becomes a drama of Ida’s flailing battle against ludicrously superior power, striving for recognition of her status and her son’s. A good deal of the camerawork is couched in shadow, conveying visually her sequestered place in Mussolini’s life. In time Fascist forces take her son away from her and make him the ward of a party bigwig. Ida is maneuvered into mental hospitals, as is the son eventually. They die--of natural causes?--in 1937 and 1942, respectively.

Mussolini was, and was known to be, a vainglorious womanizer. (I was once told by an Italian journalist that party officials in the Palazzo Venezia used to brag to one another about the number of times the Duce had slept with their wives.) The details of the Dalser story are not a secret: two books have already been published about it. Bellocchio was clearly not breaking scandalous news: his real theme is the behemoth of power and how a woman and a boy became the merest detritus in its sweep. The film’s title is more than sardonic.

Bellocchio is helped greatly by the performance of Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Ida. Love is the commonest currency in film, but not often do we see the whole-souled fervor that Mezzogiorno gives to Ida. For the young Mussolini, Bellocchio used Filippo Timi, an Italian favorite who does not have the slightest resemblance to the dictator. This wouldn’t matter much--Peter O’Toole did not look like T.E. Lawrence--except that after the march on Rome in 1922, Bellocchio switches from Timi to newsreel clips of the dictator himself. Bellocchio makes this switch with aplomb, as if assuming that the viewer will understand that there are (apparently) no newsreel clips of the earlier days. But is there no young and competent actor in Italy who has some resemblance to Il Duce? Well, in any case, it is cheery to see this venturesome director still slashing away at his old double theme--family relations and politics.

Using the title Vincere in the United States is a small act of daring: the distributor possibly counted on some historical echo in the public mind or perhaps on the last word of Pavarotti’s favorite aria, “Vincero” (I shall win). But whoever chose the American title of another Italian film had a much tougher job. It is called Mid August Lunch, which has little promise of anything. But the original title, translated, is Lunch on Ferragosto, which would be even worse for us. Ferragosto is a national holiday, August 15, when practically every Italian shop and office closes and practically all Italians are off. (Imagine trying to think of an Italian title for an American film called, say, Lunch on the Fourth of July.) We can only hope that the blandness of Mid-August Lunch will not hurt the reception of this exceptional film.

Almost as much as is possible with a feature, this picture is the work of one man, Gianni Di Gregorio, who wrote, directed, and stars in it. He was the co-writer of Gomorrah, a sanguine epic of the Camorra--the Mafia of Naples-but apparently that bloodbath was an exception for him. Now somewhere in his fifties, he began his career in the theater as an actor and director, encountered Robert Wilson and Grotowski among others, and after three years of theater work saw Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which drew him into film. He has done a good deal of screenwriting since then.

This new film is clearly the result of all his experience, and is also a brave departure. It would be hard to list all the rules for screenplays that he has ignored here. The leading role, Gianni, which Di Gregorio plays, is middle-aged, pleasant but not forceful, unromantic. (He gets one distant look at one young woman in the whole picture.) Though he sips wine continually, he is never tipsy; he just runs on wine like a car on gas. The four women in the picture are all more than elderly--one of them is Gianni’s ninety-three-year-old mother--and there is nothing like dramatic tension or a climax.

In fact, the intent of the picture is to lead us through some amusing events while we wait for a story to develop, then to conclude almost suddenly and make us realize that what we have been watching is the story. In fiction we have met this approach ever since Maupassant, but it is a rarity on the screen, and it adds to the eventual tickle of Di Gregorio’s film.

We open in an apartment in Rome today--we hardly leave it. It is a large place, furnished in an overstuffed old-fashioned way. Gianni’s father is apparently deceased, and there is no mention of where the money--there must have been some--has gone. Gianni is hard up and can’t get a job because he has to stay home and take care of his very old mother, whom he adores. But his wan financial status doesn’t seem to bother him.

At the start he is reading a novel to his mother, something he often does. (This time it is The Three Musketeers.) They are interrupted by the head of the condominium in which they live. He is a friend, but he reports that the board is taking action against Gianni for non-payment. Gianni is moderately concerned, but he is more concerned when this friend asks him if he can bring his mother here to stay overnight because he has to go off somewhere on something or other. The next day is Ferragosto; still, Gianni, unenthusiastic, agrees. Then Gianni’s doctor, also a friend, arrives on a house call, examines his patient, then asks him if he too may bring his mother to stay overnight because his shift has suddenly been changed at his hospital and his mother’s careperson has abruptly departed. Again, enforced but friendly agreement from Gianni. That’s not all. The condominium man didn’t mention his mother’s sister, whom he also brings along. So Gianni is left with four old ladies as companions for Ferragosto eve.

The apartment is one of those European places that always seem to have still one more room, so it is only later on that Gianni realizes he will have to sleep in a deck chair on the terrace. More: the next day several phone calls tell him that the ladies will have to stay with him for Ferragosto lunch. When he faces the prospect of feeding them all, he has to scurry around the vacationing city--with a friend--to find a source of supplies. At last he comes across a man fishing in the Tiber who sells him what he needs.

The atmosphere of the film is set by Gianni’s “everyman” character, which Di Gregorio amiably provides. The four women have their little likes and dislikes, the TV set has to be arranged for them, pills have to be taken, recipes are compared, there is even a hint of flirtation by one of the ladies. Gianni bounces and flexes along. He even begins to enjoy it all. This happens too to us, partly because we are watching a film--a film that actually exists--about a middle-aged man and four old women. It seems so nervy and, eventually, engaging.

Partly this is because of the close-ups. Di Gregorio does nothing at all to diminish the women’s age. Quite the reverse: he focuses on them putting on lipstick, reacting to remarks, determining what they think of one another. A further jolt: none of these four women, we are elsewhere informed, is played by an actress. We have long been accustomed to effective acting by people who are non-professional--Ajami and Ballast, for two recent instances--but these geriatric ladies expand the wonderment.

Di Gregorio strives to make the style of his film unobtrusive, almost un-cinematic. He keeps the editing to a minimum. For instance, the opening shot, the book-reading, is simply held until it is finished. When he goes from one character to another, he often doesn’t cut but simply moves the camera--not in whip-pans but as the eye might travel. This approach helps us to celebrate this holiday in that apartment with this odd group. More: those people and the comfy filmic means make this picture especially refreshing in the age of Avatar.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic of The New Republic.