PIFF 2010 website
Please note that I originally got my dates crossed for Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, and you can see it on the 19th along with the two films below. Refresh your memory with my review.
Vincere (Italy; dir. Marco Bellocchio)
Newsflash: Benito Mussolini was a jerk!
Vincere (Win), the new film by radical '60s director Marco Bellocchio is a biography of Il Duce's obsessive mistress, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Love in the Time of Cholera). As a young woman, she stumbles into the emerging revolutionary more than once, usually while he is on the run for his life. She insists her way into his life, devoting herself entirely to her lover (played by Filippo Timi), though apparently never really clueing in to the fact that he was already married. Still, Ida gives birth to Mussolini's first-born son only to find herself increasingly shunned as the Fascist leader grows more popular. Ida becomes the living embodiment of the adage "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you." Eager to bury this extra family, Mussolini has his hoods lock Ida away in a mental hospital.
The tables are turned at this point of the movie, and Bellocchio challenges our perception of events. Is it possible that our first impression of Ida as an off-her-nut stalker was a little harsh? Mussolini has so effectively cut her out, she has a right to be angry, and he has placed her in the one place where it is assured no one will believe her. Bellocchio makes the smart decision to remove the movie's version of the dictator from the film at this point. From then on out, Mussolini only appears in unearthed newsreel, and the man himself looks far different than the handsome actor who portrayed his younger years (in a sly joke, even Ida doesn't recognize him). It's all about Ida at this point, and her unflinching devotion to the truth. Or is it the truth? Could his sudden absence mean it's all been in her head? Not likely, but you have to consider it.
Having recently viewed Bellocchio's debut film, Fists in the Pocket (1965), for the first time, I was eager to see whether the older director had retained any of the younger's anything-goes spirit. How would he fit in a formal genre like a biopic? Surprisingly well, as it turns out. When Vincere settles into its conventions, it's not unlike how Bellocchio's contemporary Bernardo Bertollucci got serious in the 1980s. The old man has some fire in him yet, however, and Vincere is frequently ignited by audacious doses of opera, collages of vintage cinema and documentary footage, and insistent title graphics that appear onscreen like propagandic headlines (not unlike how film was used to spread the message way back when). These are mostly present in the first half of the film, when the young Mussolini is ready to impose his will on his audience.
Filippo Timi is fantastic as Mussolini. He also plays the dual role as the younger Benito grown up, losing his mind, and doing impressions of his father. It's a fiery role made believable by Timi's intense charisma. He is powerful as Il Duce, establishing his hunger and his forceful personality, but then managing to parody his own performance with his comic turn as the deluded Benito Jr. Does he remind anybody else of Alberto Sordi? Litle Benito playacting as Big Benito is reminiscent of the comic stylings of early cinema's best funnymen.
Vincere is not the dictator's movie, however, it's an actress' picture, and Giovanna Mezzogiorno's passion not only dominates her lover's in the first half of the movie, but once Bellocchio surrenders his film completely to her, she runs with it. Ida's mental deterioration is heartbreaking, and Bellocchio pushes her by letting several scenes rest entirely on her face as she silently breaks down. Mezzogiorno is also dead sexy in that crazy kind of way, and the love scenes between Ida and Mussolini are extra steamy.
Vincere joins a spate of recent Italian movies that match political messages with cinematic vigor. Gomorrah played at PIFF last year, as did the less artistically successful but visually dynamic Il Divo. Something is obviously going on over there, the Italians are all fired up and ready to do some screen damage. I look forward to what's coming next.
Vincere plays on 2/19 and 2/21.
Mother (South Korea; dir. Bong Joon-ho)
Most people know Korean director Bong Joon-ho from his 2006 updating of the giant-monster movie genre, The Host. As fun and endearing as that movie is, the Bong Joon-ho movie I prefer is his 2003 crime thriller Memories of Murder, a darkly comic and grisly story of a hunt for a killer. The filmmaker returns to that kind of territory for his new film, Mother, and the finished product is no less impressive.
Mother follows a single mother (Kim Hye-je) who works as an herbalist and amateur acupuncturist. She worries over everything, but her biggest concern is her twentysomething son. Though a grown man, Do-joon (Bin Won) is developmentally disabled and has the mind of a child. When he is accused of murdering a neighborhood girl, Do-joon's mom refuses to believe he is capable of such violence, regardless of what the evidence says. When her attempts to plead with the police and hire a slick lawyer fail, she decides to investigate the situation herself. Enlisting her son's criminally minded friend, she digs into the dead girl's past, uncovering disturbing stories about the people she spent her time with, and leading her to unexpected actions.
The tone of Mother is very similar to Memories of Murder. Laugh-out-loud black comedy is mixed with the dark details of the crimes. Bong Joon-ho figures if you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound, and he doesn't think it's right to let you laugh at the situation without showing you how gruesome death and violence really are. He is able to flip back and forth effortlessly, without it ever being jarring or gimmicky. The gallows humor gets us through the rougher times.
Kim Hye-je is amazing as the frightened mother. Though her character is irritating and overbearing, the actress manages to make her human. Her concern for her child is ever-present, and her stubbornness is admirable. Joon-ho gives us tiny nuggets from the woman's past, hinting at deeper despair and even possibly implicating the woman in her son's mental deficiencies. The mother is someone who believes in simple remedies for complex problems, and the story pushes her out of her comfort zone: there is no root or potion that can navigate the maze her son has drawn them into.
And Mother is like a maze. It's an ever-changing narrative, full of dead-ends, wrong turns, and surprising revelations. Its final act is full of unforeseen twists. More than gotcha!-type discoveries, these switch-ups reveal how smart the writing really is. A good mystery can be as contorted as the screenwriter wants it to be without having to resort to cheap shocks. Bong Joon-ho also believes that every solution to a problem comes with a price, and so Mother ends up being far more satisfying as a result. Whether the right man is exonerated or the wrong man gets away with it, it doesn't matter, because no one walks away unchanged.
Mother plays on 2/19 and 2/23.
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