The dark side of Mus­solini

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Vin­cere, bio­drama, not rated, in Ital­ian with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3 chiles Vin­cere is the saga of the wife and son Ben­ito Mus­solini tried to erase. The film’s press notes ex­plain that it is the story of “a dark page in his­tory, one ig­nored in the of­fi­cial bi­og­ra­phy of the Duce.”

You’re think­ing it must take some pretty nasty stuff to make Mus­solini look bad. But in fact, the dic­ta­tor’s rep­u­ta­tion has been en­joy­ing a come­back in Italy in re­cent years. “iMus­solini,” an iPhone app that of­fers record­ings and texts of Il Duce’s speeches, was wildly pop­u­lar in Italy early this year. Italy’s right-wing Prime Min­is­ter Silvio Ber­lus­coni, whose govern­ment has backed im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies that would not be out of place in Ari­zona, has expressed ad­mi­ra­tion for the Fas­cist leader (“Mus­solini never killed any­one,” he was quoted as say­ing in the Bri­tish mag­a­zine The Spec­ta­tor).

In this con­text, writer-di­rec­tor Marco Bel­loc­chio’s ex­posé of a par­tic­u­larly sor­did chap­ter in Mus­solini’s pri­vate life car­ries added bite. Il Duce’s shame­ful treat­ment of Ida Dalser, his lover and re­puted first wife, and their son,

Ben­ito Al­bino, may not have po­lit­i­cal re­ver­ber­a­tions to com­pare with his bru­tal in­va­sion of Ethiopia, his al­liance with Hitler, and his de­por­ta­tion of Jews to Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps, but it puts a hu­man — or in­hu­man — face on the man who made the trains run on time and led Italy into World War II.

Vin­cere is a wild ride of a movie, op­er­atic in theme and style, some­times flam­boy­ant, of­ten murky, oc­ca­sion­ally vault­ing ec­stat­i­cally into camp, and more than oc­ca­sion­ally turn­ing in­com­pre­hen­si­ble as it scat­ters time frames and shuf­fles re­al­ity and il­lu­sion. It be­gins with a chal­lenge to God. The young Mus­solini (Filippo Timi), ad­dress­ing a po­lit­i­cal meet­ing in Trento in 1907, of­fers God “five min­utes to strike me dead” to prove He ex­ists. God fails the test. A young woman in the au­di­ence, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mez­zo­giorno, Love in the

Time of Cholera) is im­pressed. She is even more im­pressed soon af­ter, when, flee­ing the po­lice at a street demon­stra­tion, the young fire­brand runs into her arms, and they ex­change a kiss that ef­fec­tively seals her fate. It is still on her mind seven years later when, now the pro­pri­etor of a fashion shop in Mi­lan, she sees Mus­solini again, march­ing at the head of an­other demon­stra­tion, and slips him a note. He turns up at her flat, and in a scene of highly charged eroti­cism, they make love in dark shad­ows from which the faint light catches the glint of Ben­ito’s open eyes star­ing past her head as she claws at him and hits high Cs of pas­sion.

Mus­solini soon finds him­self at odds with the So­cial­ists over his grow­ing mil­i­tarism and out of a job as the edi­tor of their paper. He tells Ida of his am­bi­tions — to be greater than Napoleon, to “climb higher,” to never be sat­is­fied. It’s not clear that Ida is com­mit­ted to Mus­solini ide­o­log­i­cally, though she sup­ports him whole­heart­edly through his meta­mor­phoses; her com­mit­ment is to his mas­culin­ity and drive. When he tells her of his dream of start­ing his own news­pa­per, Il Popolo d’Italia, Ida sells ev­ery­thing, even the shirt off her back, to bankroll him. And she con­ceives his child.

But there is an­other woman, Rachele (Michela Cescon), with an­other child, and she’s the one he mar­ries when he re­turns, wounded, from the Great War. Ly­ing bro­ken and ban­daged in a makeshift hos­pi­tal in a church, Mus­solini watches an over­head movie pro­jec­tion of the Pas­sion of the Christ, with whom he seems to iden­tify, and re­jects Ida in fa­vor of Rachele as the two women scrap over him and the king of Italy stops by to pay his re­spects.

From there it’s down­hill for Ida’s prospects. There is a scene of a wed­ding cer­e­mony be­tween her and Mus­solini, but al­though the his­tor­i­cal record sug­gests such a mar­riage may well have taken place, the movie seems to of­fer it as a fan­tasy — which is cu­ri­ous, since Bel­loc­chio is cham­pi­oning Ida’s claim as Il Duce’s first wife and mother of his first-born son (he fa­thered a daugh­ter with Rachele). Ida won’t take this phase of their re­la­tion­ship ly­ing down, and when she be­comes too much of a thorn in his side, Il Duce has her com­mit­ted to an asy­lum. Her son, first rec­og­nized and then de­nied by his fa­ther, is taken from her to be raised in an or­phan­age and then by fos­ter par­ents. At the age of 20, he is com­mit­ted to a mental hos­pi­tal. Ida never sees him again. And she never sees Mus­solini again in the flesh. From here on, she sees him only in black-and-white news­reel footage. He’s a car­i­ca­ture of a fig­ure, al­most clown­ish with his jut­ting jaw, pout­ing lower lip, and simian swag­ger; he’s like a prob­lem child that only a mother, a lover, or a will­ingly self­de­luded coun­try could love.

Mus­solini and Ben­ito Al­bino are both played mar­velously by Timi, ma­cho as the fa­ther and in­se­cure and anx­ious as the son. And Mez­zo­giorno is a vol­cano as Ida, from her erup­tions of pas­sion and rivers of sac­ri­fice to the fury of a woman scorned and the des­per­a­tion of a mother in­car­cer­ated and sep­a­rated from her child.

Bel­loc­chio was in­spired to make this film in part by a re­cent Ital­ian doc­u­men­tary, Il Se­greto di Mus­solini (Mus­solini’s Se­cret), and he has turned the story of Mus­solini’s dis­carded wife and son into a movie that has some of the in­sis­tent swag­ger and ex­cess of Il Duce him­self. It is not so much in­her­ently great as it de­mands to be great. And while that makes for an un­even ride, it earns its right to our at­ten­tion. ◀

Il se­Duce: Filippo Timi and Giovanna Mez­zo­giorno

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