Delving into the expunged files of a dark stretch of modern Italian history, “Vincere” tells the story of Ida Dalser, the lover and, quite possibly, first wife of dictator Benito Mussolini and the mother of his firstborn son.
After demanding official recognition for this status, Dalser was institutionalized, tortured and branded mad. She continued, for the rest of her days, to insist on her rights.
Veteran Italian writer-director Marco Bellocchio (“Fist in His Pocket”) treats Dalser both as a personification of Italy’s fascist-era mass mentality and as a unique historical figure who, purged from records, deserves an audience. A maestro, he’s made an exhilaratingly operatic and original melodrama on both fronts.
“Vincere” stretches from 1907, when Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) is a charismatic young socialist spellbinding an audience with a simple-minded stunt, to the 1930s, when Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who first appears as a face in that crowd, dies in an asylum.
In between, we have a kiss in the street, torrid lovemaking (although Mussolini seems more in love with Mussolini than with Ida), and Ida selling her shop to fund the now-fascist Mussolini’s newspaper.
In 1914, the two apparently marry (no actual certificate was ever found). Ida bears Mussolini’s son.
But then the ascending Mussolini marries Rachele Guidi (Michela Cescon) after returning from the war. When Ida inconveniently maintains that she, herself, is his official wife, Mussolini has her locked away in, eventually, asylums.
Fruitlessly, she writes letters asserting her rightful place. She never sees her son again.
The son (whom Mussolini initially acknowledged), played by the theatrical Timi in a dual role, experiences similar trials as an adult. (More comically, he does a wicked impression of Il Duce.)
Captivating at first, the drama sags somewhat after Mussolini disappears from Ida’s life. Mezzogiorno plays anguish exquisitely, but, after umpteen shots of Ida suffering, we’ve gotten the point.
Also problematic is the conception of Ida as tragically heroic. We admire her refusal to be quashed, but her ongoing love for a bloodthirsty megalomaniac is simply sad.
All said, however, this is a rewarding excavation of lost history and a dazzling serving of fascist-era Italy.
Unlike formulaic biopics, that purport to be accurate but feel phony, Bellocchio’s drama is a rousing, imaginative concoction of steamy sex, visual poetry, newsreel footage, delusions of grandeur fantasy (some terrific moments), animation and opera that keeps viewers rapt and believing.
The title, for anyone wondering, means “to win.”
Vincere (Three stars)
Starring Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michela Cescon
Written by Marco Bellocchio, Daniela Ceselli
Directed by Marco Bellocchio
Running time 2 hours 2 minutes