In Marco Bellocchio's operatic historical melodrama "Vincere," a beautiful woman, intoxicated by sexual desire and political sloganeering, abandons all judgment and reason, losing her money, her freedom and her son, in that order.
The woman, Ida Dalser, happened to fall for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and Bellocchio uses her delusion as a metaphor for the madness that befell his own country during Mussolini's rise to power in the aftermath of the First World War.
Dalser's story, suppressed during Mussolini's rule, has come to light only fairly recently and, in Bellochio's riveting, cinematic film, makes for a harrowing tragedy on both a personal and global level.
The movie opens in 1914 with a young Mussolini (Filippo Timi), then a committed socialist, causing riots with inflammatory speeches about the tyranny of religion and monarchy.
Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) watches her man, entranced by his words and aroused by their effect on the populace. She and Mussolini enjoy some highly charged bedroom encounters, leading Dalser to sell all her possessions to cover the publishing costs of Mussolini's newspaper.
But when you've got it bad, it's not particularly good when the object of your affection is a megalomaniac who will eventually have a hand in two world wars. Shortly after Dalser bears him a son, Mussolini abandons her — and socialism — marrying another woman and adopting an authoritarian political streak.
Rather than accepting that he's just not that into her, Dalser goes on the warpath, making messy public displays that don't exactly jibe with the new sense of fascist order in Mussolini's Italy. Even after Dalser is confined to a mental institution, she remains convinced that Mussolini still loves her and this is all an elaborate test to be sure she's ready for "anything."
Thunder, lightning, and everything else
Those who buy a ticket to "Vincere" should be ready for anything, too. Bellocchio tells the film's historical story in an electrifying fashion, mixing in newsreel footage, on-screen slogans and Futurist art, a bit of thunder and lightning and Carlo Crivelli's boom-boom score.
Is it over-the-top? Yes and your point? "Vincere" is an Italian movie about a pompous dictator. What better way to tell the story.
Once Timi's Mussolini disappears, the movie's energy flags a bit, as we watch Dalser repeatedly try to win the recognition she so desperately wants. A psychologist advises her to keep her mouth shut and blend into the scenery until fascism runs its course.
Dalser refuses. In contrast to the man she calls her "husband," she rigidly adheres to her principles, even if it means, in one of the movie's most arresting (and repeated) images, being forced to scale her asylum's walls to fling blankets of letters she hopes will win the hearts and minds of the Italian people and Mussolini.
Mezzogiorno plays Dalser with trembling emotion, but without the express interest in making the character a sympathetic heroine. Dalser's continued belief that Mussolini will embrace her remains preposterous — as it should be.