In 1907, the well bred, beautiful young Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, "Love in the Time of Cholera") had a chance encounter with Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) in Trent, as he fled from the military breaking up the socialist protest he led. 'Help me,' he implored in a dark alley, using her as cover. Seven years later in Milan, still overcome with the feelings he inspired in her, Ida did just that, selling her business and belongings in order to help him found Il Popolo d’Italia, the new newspaper that would become the wellspring of Italy's Fascist party. Ida married him and bore him a son, but once he joined the army in WWI, becoming a celebrity war hero into the bargain, he denied their existence, and married his earlier lover Rachele Guidi (Michela Cescon). But Ida refuses to let the man she gave everything to forget her, carrying on a letter writing campaign for recognition from the insane asylum where she was locked away for years in "Vincere."
Writer/director Marco Bellocchio ("My Mother's Smile") has taken a little known piece of history from one of the men who created one of history's blackest backdrops and filmed it with an expressionistic style that can be dramatically operatic but also frustratingly abstract. A further blow is delivered by the performance of Filippo Timi, who is so intense as Mussolini that once he leaves the screen the film seems to deflate. Mezzogiorno is dazzling as Ida, but her long haul over the years becomes repetitive. Still, "Vincere" is so visually and aurally rich, watching it is like experiencing an art film made thirty to forty years ago.
The first third of the film is the most satisfying, as Ida is overcome by the dark and imperious stranger whose sudden kiss inspires passion in her even as he calculates his next move. Ida thrills as she watches his assertiveness in the face of opposition lose him his job as editor of 'Avanti!.' After spilling out his simplistic philosophies and dreams for the future on a park bench, he takes her in his arms. Bellocchio highlights the scene with an overlay of animated goose-stepping soldiers and a violent orchestral upsurge (original music by Carlo Crivelli). After making love, Ida a sensuous nude, Mussolini staring forward over her head, he strides, naked, to her balcony, where he imagines throngs cheering.
Bellocchio begins to use archival footage early and when 1922 rolls around his film's timeline, this is the only way we see Mussolini represented, as Ida follows her now larger-than-life lover via newsreels in a local theater. In one of there last encounters, at the army hospital where Il Duce is being nursed by his new wife Rachele, a film of the crucifixion plays out on the hospital's domed ceiling - starring Timi/Mussolini as Christ and Mezzogiorno/Ida as the Virgin Mary. Later, when Ida appears at an official event and raises her skirt for her lover's eyes, he has her banished to the lunatic asylum in Pergine, where she is restrained and tortured with 'medical treatments.' Ida writes to everyone, right up to the Pope, but her letters are all intercepted. She also begs to see her son (young Fabrizio Costella, looking for all the world like a young Michael Corleone), who has been taken from the home of her sister and sent to a 'boarding school' where he is the only student. Later his last name is changed to Bernardi, a government official from Trent who is given custody.
The film continues to cut back and forth between the fates of Ida and her son. There are some arresting images, like Ida climbing the bars of the asylum to scatter her letters as snow swirls around her like a bird in a cage. Benito Albino grows up, now played by Timi, with an identity crisis, imitating his famous father for the amusement of his fellow students, but he's clearly a bit off kilter. Mother and son never meet again and share a similar, tragic fate.
"Vincere" is a gorgeous period production, with beautiful cinematography by Daniele Ciprì, and Bellocchio's self-referential use of cinema is cleverly interwoven into his film, but the way the story is told is often lacking, leaving the audience to connect dots without enough information to do so. It is never clear, for example, how Ida is Mussolini's first wife when we see her listening across the street as her lover plays the violin for his six year-old child with Rachele. The film runs just over two hours and while we spend a lot of time watching Ida being subdued or writing letters, her son's more varied experience is undernourished. "Vincere" (the title means 'to win') starts off with dramatic flourish then slowly glides to its inevitable conclusion, leaving us with a historically questionable footnote of a heroine - just what did Ida believe in besides her man?. Still, the first third of the film is dazzling.
Robin did not see this film.
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