Marco Bellochio’s Vincere (the title translates as “win”) is quite the most unusual and striking film I’ve seen in some time. I freely admit that I wasn’t exactly filled with delighted anticipation by the prospect of a movie about Benito Mussolini’s early lover, possible first wife and mother of his first son. Bellochio’s film proves otherwise by being fascinating work that contains layer upon layer of text and subtext—presented in a unique manner.
On the one hand, Vincere is exactly what it claims to be, since it does chart the life of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Love in the Time of Cholera) who becomes entranced by the young Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi). She becomes his lover, bears his child, finances his newspaper and is discarded and disowned by him, leading to her descent into desperation and madness. This is presented in a full-blown operatic style that recalls the more adventurous films of the 1970s—a style we see far too little of today. And yet Vincere utilizes the more recent fashion of historical and biographical films of taking the story up to a point and filling in the rest of it with on-screen titles—something I think it could have done without. What could have been a shattering climax suddenly becomes a history lesson that pulls you right out of the movie.
Looked at simply, this is a movie about a woman scorned who becomes obsessed to the point of madness with the man who scorned her—or more correctly with her projection of that man. Projection is the key word here. It is, in fact, the key to the entire film and it is quite literal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where more time is devoted to characters watching images on a movie screen. In part, this stems from the fact that after Mussolini’s desertion of Ida neither she nor the viewer ever sees him again—except in newsreel footage of the real Mussolini. That this will happen—and that everyone in the film accepts projection as reality—is established early on in a scene where the young Mussolini rushes naked to the balcony on the eve of World War I. In his mind, he seems to conjure up newsreel footage of the crowds that would one day flock to see him—while Ida covers him in a makeshift bed-sheet toga.
Later in the film, the young Mussolini lies wounded in a hospital where the 1916 film Christus is being shown to the patients. It becomes perfectly clear that Mussolini views himself as Christ and that Ida views herself as the penitent Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross. Projection is everywhere—from newsreels to Christus to Ida watching Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) in an insane asylum. It is reality that is hard to find in the world of the film. In some regards, this is very similar—thematically—to Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction (2002), where all the characters play out both sides of relationships with characters who bear no relation to their real counterparts. The difference is that Bellochio seriously ups the ante on an allegorical level by suggesting that the entire country is transfixed into adoration of Mussolini’s projected image of himself. By extension, the despair and madness that plagues Ida is a personalized version of that of the whole country of Italy—a people obsessed not with the man, but with an idealized notion of that man.
Bellochio’s approach to all this is striking and inventive. He uses not only newsreel and other footage to make his points, but slogans emblazoned on the screen like propaganda posters, futuristic art and even animations to convey his film and its themes—all of it set to a thundering operatic score by Carlo Crivelli that often sounds a good bit like the work of Bernard Herrmann. It’s frankly thrilling, exhilarating and occasionally overwhelming.
Almost equally interesting is the manner in which the film offers us a picture of Mussolini unlike any we’ve ever had. Let’s face it, our own image of the man is culled from newsreels of the heavyset dictator in his absurdly decorated uniform with his lower lip jutting out like a sour Maurice Chevalier impersonator. Or worse, we have the even more absurd deliberately comedic image of Jack Oakie in Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator. The business of mocking Mussolini is deeply entrenched—and even occurs in the film as a specialty of his bastard son (also played by Filippo Timi) to the delight of his classmates, who themselves are mocking the son at the same time. Bellochio, however, shows us the earlier Mussolini—a Mussolini we haven’t seen, which winds up helping explain how the caricature we know came to be in the position he attained.
The film—for all its wonders and they are many—is not perfect. Bellochio finds more mileage in depicting Ida’s rages and mad scenes than the viewer is apt to. Yet Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s performance holds our attention, and Bellochio is never without a composition that isn’t arresting and in some cases just plain beautiful. Even with the imperfections, Vincere is a film I urge you to see. This is filmmaking unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year. At its best, the film is magnificent and astonishing in its daring. Not rated, but contains nudity, sexuality and adult themes.