In approaching the sordid history of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini, director Marco Bellocchio has selected an enthralling operatic method to tell his tale. With deception, animalistic sexuality, mental illness, and teary passions, it makes sense to twirl this intimate tale of tainted love into a visual shotgun blast of history and surrealism. “Vincere” drives aggressively and confidently as it builds a case against the ruthlessness of Mussolini, molding a motion picture of threadbare reality, but convincing dynamism.
Spying a young, godless Benito Mussolini (Filipo Timi) in his element of verbal hellfire, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) finds herself instantly pulled into his orbit. Embarking on a heated affair while Italy endures radical change during WWI, Mussolini and Ida soon have a son, cementing their relationship in Ida’s eyes, who sells her belonging to help her lover achieve his dreams of power.
It doesn’t take long before Ida grasps the bigger picture, learning Mussolini has other women and children he tends to while she succumbs to debt. Demanding a part in Il Duce’s life, Ida is hurriedly branded insane by the fascist government, separated from her beloved son, and left to rot in a mental prison. As the years pass and Italy embraces Mussolini as its leader, Ida spends every waking minute searching for escape, desperate to reunite with her son.
Masterfully incorporating newsreel footage, extended musical accompaniment, and the stunning faces of the ensemble, “Vincere” is a historical concoction amped up to expressionistic levels of reverberation. It’s a terrifically bold, fist-clenched feature film that reawakens known elements through the art of cinema, with veteran filmmaker Bellocchio happily coloring outside the lines to summarize Ida’s cruel violation at the hands of Mussolini and his devious minions.
Half romantic tragedy, half history lesson, “Vincere” achieves a comfortable middle ground to work from, capturing the life of Il Duce from his formative years as a socialist trailblazer to his rise as a leathery leader of the growling fascist movement, sweeping across the land with a fuming podium manner, mesmerizing a nation with his fierce persona.
The picture also posits Mussolini as a determined lover with little patience for relationships, working from woman to woman to sate his baroque idea of lust, leaving a trail of babies behind. Being one of the first in his harem, Ida feels a sense of significance that’s never acknowledged by the leader, especially after handing her life over to Mussolini, only to have her feelings crushed, her child stripped away from her, and her mental capacity questioned to a point of imprisonment.
Despair drives the second half of the picture, which does away with Mussolini’s rise to supremacy to focus on Ida and her shattered psyche. The blood-draining dread communicated through Mezzogiorno’s performance is mesmerizing, finding the exact sense of brittle determination needed to buy into the ornate expressiveness of the character and the film itself.
The cast is outstanding all around (Timi’s Il Duce is an unforgettable blade of a man), yet Mezzogiorno carries the film with a singular texture of betrayal, conveying the chaotic determination of a women faced with a future of misery, yet refuses to offer herself up for the slaughter. “Vincere” visually balloons up time and again, but Mezzogiorno’s performance manages to ground the film with a necessary portion of humanity.
Heaving with startling images, thunderous displays of historical change, and an unexpectedly randy portrayal of Ida and Mussolini’s bedroom antics, “Vincere” effectively executes a complicated balance of melodrama and wildly theatrical urges. It’s a superbly crafted motion picture.