23 September 2009 | Chris Knipp
Mussolini's fascism as seen by a wronged woman
Six years after his intimate reimagining of the Aldo Moro kidnapping that rocked Italy in the Seventies in 'Buongiorno, notte,' Bellocchio has made another haunting and even more sweeping and iconic historical film. 'Vincere' is about Benito Mussolini's secret first wife and son, who were hidden away and both died in insane asylums. 'Vincere' depicts a strange, distorted period in Italian history, and skillfully melds stock footage with recreations, black and white with color (rich in reds, alternating with ashen grays), public tumult with private torment. Visually lush and full of chiaroscuro, 'Vincere is also a showcase for the talents of Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Ida Dalzer, the woman who met Benito Mussolini when he was the editor of Avanti, an ardent Socialist with strong populist, anti-monarchical, anti-clerical views, who dramatically dares God, if He exists, to strike him down.
Opening sequences alternate between 1907 when Ida first meets Mussolini (Filippo Timi) in Trent, and 1914 in Milan. She is a respectable middle-class woman with a beauty salon. On the eve of WWI, he shifts from pacifist liberal to pro-war rightist. Deathly afraid of ending in mediocrity, he is ravenous for power. Ida intensely supports him whatever his direction, and sells all her possessions, including jewels, furniture, and her business, to support his newspaper. This leads to the founding of the paper "Il Popolo d'Italia," which becomes a fascist rallying-point. The film makes clear that she is madly in love but never mad. It also makes clear that though he declares his love of her and fathers a son named Benito, born just before he goes off to the front, whom he acknowledges, and they evidently marry, he keeps a certain distance.
In WWI Mussolini is wounded in the army and is pleased to be congratulated by the king. When Ida finds him he is being tended in hospital by a new lover, a woman named Rachele (Michela Cescon). This is the last time Ida sees him in person.
As Mussolini rises to power and becomes the dictator known as "Il Duce," linking himself with the ancient Roman emperors and dreaming of world domination, Ida is more and more kept away from him, and appears as a figure on the outskirts of power, at the center only of sporadic and operatic encounters during which she pleads for recognition and attention, only to be swept aside. She has a marriage certificate but it becomes lost. All her papers are taken. Mussolini remains with Rachele, is married to her, and fathers children by her. He conceals that he was married to Ida.
Ida, who calls herself Ida Mussolini and her son Benito or Benitino Albino Mussolini, is a woman obsessed, whom others urge to move on, but will not give up her pursuit of her idol and the man she believes to be the love of her life. For a while she is put under a kind of house arrest with her sister, then confined in one insane asylum and then another, while her son is taken away and sent to boarding school. She writes letters of protest to everyone, including the king and the pope; this of course only makes her seem crazy, but in a hearing it's evident that she is tragically obsessed, but lucid, and in fact she is never declared insane. A psychiatrist (Corrado Invernizzi) vows to help her, but she is taken elsewhere before he can do so.
The film is rife with operatic passages featuring bright lights, dark shadows, violent storms and heavy rainfall, and yet retains its own kind of lucidity; it's clear that the country and not Ida is mad, and Il Duce is the head madman. The most haunting scene shows an actual speech by Mussolini at the height of his power in which the gestures and facial contortions are not only ugly and strange but unmistakably those of a dangerous madman. Cut to the now grown son of Ida, doing an imitation of Mussolini's speechifying and himself appearing genuinely deranged. Records show both mother and son received treatments that were akin to torture, and Ida was incarcerated for eleven years. The son died at the age of 26; Ida Dalser died at 57, 30 years after she first met Mussolini Italy's eventual fascist dictator.
Since the film's protagonist is on the periphery, it makes sense that eventually we know Mussolini only through the newsreels she occasionally sees, which are brilliantly integrated into the film; it's hard to convey how striking and integral these images are. There are also haunting still portraits of Ida, showing her at progressive stages of suffering. The film's sense of pictorialism is augmented by a sense of the visual language of the period, heightened by a scene in which Mussolini is introduced to the Italian Futurists and their paintings, and excellent use is made of Futurist and Fascist graphic design and fonts. The sound track is powerful but muted.
The film in fact is most satisfying visually, and despite Giovanna Mezzogiorno's dedication to her performance as the independent yet long-suffering woman, there is a lack of three-dimensionality in the characterizations: the figures are monumental but not quite human. The focus becomes a bit distant even on Ida as her torments increase, and there is nothing about the private life of Il Duce. Finally there is not the intimacy Bellocchio achieved in 'Good Morning, Night,' except in the first intimate scenes between the young (still hairy) Benito and Ida. Nonetheless, the effect of the whole film is both sick-making and scary.
Though Bellocchio's style here is operatic, it's a swift-moving, elegant, contemporary kind of opera, and it works.
An IFC film, 'Vincere' was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes and was also shown at Telluride, and Toronto. I saw it at a preview screening of the New York Film Festival.