Vincere (Italy, 2009)

April 01, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Vincere Poster

Spoiler warning: The movie is based on real people and events so I am less constrained about revealing certain historical facts than I might be with a fictional account.

The story told in Vincere, despite being as faithful to history as one can reasonably expect, is not widely known. This is due in large part to efforts made 80 years ago to erase these events from the official record. Recent research has uncovered many of the facts, resulting in a TV documentary, two books, and now Marco Bellocchio's partially fictionalized account. The chief fascination with Vincere is the opportunity it affords to view Italy of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s through a different prism than one we're accustomed to, and to be provided with a new (although not altogether unexpected) perspective of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini.

The movie opens with a brief sequence in 1907 featuring the first meeting of the young socialist firebrand Mussolini (Filippo Timi) with the equally idealistic Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) at a rally. Events flash ahead to the twilight of the pre-World War I era, when Mussolini and Ida are more formally "introduced." They become lovers and she sells her worldly possessions to fund the development and publication of the newspaper, "Il Popolo d'Italia." The two are married in a low-key ceremony and Ida bears Mussolini's first-born son, who is named after his father. Mussolini goes away to war and returns a changed man. Now fiercely devoted to the fascist cause, he abandons his wife and son to marry his mistress, Rachele (Michela Cescon). When Ida won't go gently into obscurity, Mussolini has his cronies incarcerate her in a mental asylum, which is where she spends most of her days, with her mad love fermenting into bitterness and anger. Meanwhile, her son ends up in an orphanage, where he grows up to resemble his father (and is played by the same actor, Filippo Timi).

The most significant problem encountered by Bellocchio in developing the story is how to provide a dramatically satisfying conclusion when the factual end offers little in the way of closure. Vincere's last act is uneven and the final scenes have a rushed, incomplete feel. The resolution is provided by way of captions that explain how and when Ida and Benito Albino died (as well as a reminder of Mussolini's fate). One certainly can't fault Bellocchio for sticking to the historical record, but the manner in which he chooses to close the narrative results in the sense of something unfinished.

Vincere is divided into two distinct segments. In the first, Mussolini is as much a vital character as Ida. It's a love story of sorts, with the two of them overcome both by passion for one another and by political fervor. Filippo Timi plays the young Mussolini with fire in his eyes and the sex scenes are frank (although not graphic). The film's second, longer piece focuses on Ida after she has been denied by Mussolini. During this portion of Vincere, Mussolini is no longer seen "in person;" his appearances are provided by old newsreels and films of actual speeches. No actor stands in for him; the images we see are of the real man. When he's with Ida, the character is humanized. After he turns his back on her, he becomes a distant, almost intangible presence. He does none of the "dirty work" himself - that is left up to his subordinates.

A minor failing of Vincere is in providing a poor bridge between the two segments. It's never clear precisely why Ida falls out of favor. Is it because his relationship with Rachele is more politically expedient? Is it because he views Ida as a liability? Has their passion grown stale or sour? Bellocchio mimics the historical record in this instance. Rather than providing conjecture, he allows the mystery which historians have not resolved to stand. This omission makes it difficult to reconcile the version of Mussolini played by Timi with the one seen in black-and-white news footage.

Vincere is primarily a portrait of obsession and madness. The obsession is Ida's - she demands a recognition she is never accorded. The madness is Italy's - following Il Duce on a path that will lead to a damning and disastrous alliance with Hitler. Bellocchio illustrates that, no matter how deranged the authorities attempt to make Ida appear, she is lucid. She is driven first by a desire to reconcile with Mussolini then by a need to see her son. Her desperation is dismissed by some as madness but her doctors recognize the truth.

The brave and unflinching performance of Giovanna Mezzogiorno is the foundation upon which the bedrock of Vincere rests. She's the heart and soul of the film. Her portrayal is the reason we feel sadness and outrage at Ida's treatment and anger at the cold, calculated denial of Mussolini. It's easy to despise the ruler because of what he stood for and who his allies were; Vincere provides a more personal reason for the dislike. Some historians may be working to rehabilitate Mussolini's reputation more than sixty years after his fall and death, but it's difficult to whitewash the atrocities committed on his own family members. Vincere is Ida's story, but it says as much about fascist Italy and its ruler as it does about the central character.

Vincere (Italy, 2009)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2010-04-02
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nudity, Sexual Content, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: Italian with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1