Vincere provides refresher course in Mussolini's rise

Marco Bellocchio's new film feels operatic at times

At a time when epithets like "fascist" and "socialist" hurtle through our political discourse like bricks through windows, the Italian drama Vincere provides a torrid but useful refresher course on the rise of Benito Mussolini. These days, our culture tends to view Il Duce as Hitler's oafish World War II sidekick, but Vincere brings his brutality and dangerous charisma vividly to life.

Director Marco Bellocchio presents Mussolini (Filippo Timi) as a young rock star among Italian revolutionaries before the First World War. Beautician Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) gravitates to him like a desperate groupie. Given Timi's smoldering resemblance to Raul Julia, it's easy to see the attraction. His impassivity in the face of her declarations of love, however, should come as a warning sign. Ida remains too besotted with Mussolini to question his changing ideals, including an embrace of war and a rejection of socialism.

Vincere, whose title that translates as "Win," offers a whirlwind account of early 20th-century Italian history. Headlines such as "Audacia!" fly at the audience, soldiers and bombers crisscross the screen, and Mussolini exhorts to ever-increasing crowds. With larger-than-life personalities and turbulent music playing almost constantly on the soundtrack, Vincere maintains the grandeur and narrative simplicity of opera.

Ida marries Mussolini and bears him a son. Consequently, she feels horribly betrayed after discovering the existence of another wife and child. For reasons never explained to the audience, Mussolini denies his marriage to Ida, whose aggrieved insistence on the truth and refusal to take a hint in a fascist country lands her in an insane asylum. (The recent documentary Mussolini's Secret provides details about Dalser's life.) Following their separation, the film only shows the real Mussolini in black-and-white film footage, although Timi subsequently returns to the film in a surprising guise.

Vincere's second half becomes a more repetitious mental asylum melodrama, tracking Ida's Kafka-esque predicament as a woman treated as a nonperson in Fascist Italy. Mezzogiorno's performance keeps Ida's heightened emotions from becoming histrionic, whether playing the role's youthful lust or enraged desperation. The film uses Ida not just as a sympathetic victim, but a symbol for any of the people or principles Mussolini embraced and then abandoned.

Vincere's narrative also contains a counterpoint involving the evolution of the film medium, from primitive turn-of-the-century images to war footage, from Chaplin's silent films to the talkies. Mussolini's dominance of the newsreels suggests that he seduced the young medium the same way as he seduced the young woman, but never abandoned his celluloid mistress.