The dark side of Mussolini
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