Bad Mussolini

'Vincere' tells the compelling story of the woman who claimed she was the Italian dictator's first wife

My people, the Italians, are celebrated in cinema as the inventors of gangland-style executions and severed-horse-head brunches.

Which is too bad, because the Italians have done much more in their 3,000-year history than simply make offers whose refusal was postulated as non-possible. Indeed, it was the Italians who invented a preventative against currency-borne disease through the laundering of money; it was the Italians who combined hair, chests and golden chains of great value; and it was the Italians who invented the 20th century's most colorful political movement, fascism.

I realize the Germans like to take credit for this, but Mussolini was pouting, strutting and saluting with a straight arm years before that parvenu dwarf Hitler got into the action and muddied things up with a politically incorrect attitude toward religious and ethnic tolerance.

However, in spite of his propensity for accurate railway schedules, Senor Mussolini (or "The Duke," as he liked to be called by the people he was murdering) was not an entirely uncontroversial figure. On top of the fact that he tortured his enemies and threatened their children with violence (which, according to our 43rd president's crack legal team, are perfectly acceptable practices, so never mind), he treated the mother of his first child rather shabbily.

And that is the topic of Vincere, which is Italian for "Win," although perhaps not in the contemporary Internet sense of the term. The film starts with a young Mussolini (Filippo Timi) giving God five minutes to strike him dead. When the deity mysteriously fails to oblige him, Mussolini leaps across a table and into history. But first, he stops and leaps into Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), a fetching and uninhibited woman who serves as his inspiration and financial backer during the start of his rise to nastiness.

Apparently, much of Vincere is true, and it maintains its truth by presenting some of its more controversial content in the form of insinuations, possible recollections/inventions, and newsreel footage. The historical Ida Dalser, as in the film, seems to have had a son fathered by Mussolini, and she always claimed that he married her. However, Mussolini abandoned her and her son, and took up with another woman, with whom he had five additional children. Perhaps as a result of this, or perhaps because they were never truly married, Mussolini denied Dalser's claims and eventually disowned any relation to her son.

As she struggled to assert her claims, Dalser's mental health deteriorated, or perhaps she was simply branded as insane so Mussolini could get her out of the picture. Institutionalized, she continued her struggle to be recognized, writing an endless series of letters to the government, the newspapers and the pope. Her son, meanwhile, was forcibly adopted by a government official and was eventually told to renounce his assertions that he was Mussolini's love child.

What makes Vincere worth watching, at least for its first 80 minutes or so, is the inventive techniques of director Marco Bellocchio. In an attempt to capture the cinematic mood of the time, words leap across the screen in shifting and swelling fascist fonts; disembodied, retro voices shout slogans; and dark streets take on a sepia tone as the action moves from Bellocchio's footage to actual newsreels from the period.

In one of the most clever conceits, Mussolini is played by an actor in the first half of the film, but in the second, he is played by the historical Mussolini, with found footage continuing the narrative. Meanwhile, Dalser's son, Benito Albino, grows up and is played by the actor who played the senior Mussolini in the first half.

It's a weird effect, one that would be dreamlike if the film didn't have so much more force and clarity than any dream. Timi is great in both roles. In the start, he captures Mussolini's strength and charisma, and he makes it apparent that these might not always be virtues. In the second half, when he plays the son, we get the same sense of monomaniacal egoism, but it is now expressed as resentment and, eventually, madness.

This is perhaps the film's most clever psychological insight. Unfortunately, like many movies, Vincere is about 20 percent longer than it should be. The tale of Dalser runs aground in the latter third of the film, and the narrative slows down as we witness her repeated frustrations and humiliations. It's not simply that Vincere is too long; it's also that it is perfectly obvious which parts should have been trimmed.

Still, the sweeping, fascistic music; the style of the filmmaking; the combination of Triumph of the Will-style grandiosity and soap-opera melodrama; and the inventive use of period footage make this an interesting, and occasionally excellent experiment—though it is only partially successful.


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