A glimpse at the private romance of a fascist leader

Mar 31, 2010 at 12:00 am

With his brutish forehead and paunchy, jut-jawed malevolence, we tend to think of Benito Mussolini as a dictatorial loony tune; but there was once a time when he cut a rather dashing, romantic figure. The grandly ambitious Vincere (Victory) tells the story of a woman swept up in the young revolutionary's mighty wake, and then washed away like flotsam when his power became complete.  

When we first see him, Mussolini (Filippo Timi) is a fiery socialist radical whose idea of an effective debate tactic against the clergy is to wind a stopwatch and challenge God to strike him down right there before the timer ends. Such histrionics earn him headlines, and draw the attention of a lovely young beautician named Ida Dasler (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who becomes his lover, confidante and benefactor. Their affair is tempestuous, full of fights and reconciliations, eventually leading to a private wedding (though the historical records of this are slim) and the birth of a son, Benito Jr. Unbeknownst to Ida, there was another woman all along, and, due to some arcane emotional and political calculus that we're never privy to, this other woman became the rising leader's "official" wife. When Benito went to fight in World War I, Ida and son were shuffled off to the margins. She would not go quietly, never giving up on her claims of legitimacy, and never relenting in her quest for dignity, even when she was dragged to a mental hospital, where she would spend the next decade.

Spanning 30 years and the breadth of Italy, Vincere is epic in scope, but intimate in plot, focusing on mysteries of the heart that are private and unknowable, though the film is never afraid to speculate.  

Indeed, director Marco Bellocchio is prone to go big or go home, lending even secret moments a bold, operatic sweep. He has a knack for ostentatious imagery, with all the flowing curtains, fluttering doves and shadowy city streets you'd expect from a Palm d'Or finalist. At times, the swagger gets the better of him, and the melodrama grows overwrought — but is saved by the tremendous performances. 

Mezzogiorno manages to be sexy, desperate and passionate without ever seeming pathetic. Meanwhile Timi mesmerizes, commanding the screen with intensity, and later on, when he's replaced with newsreel footage of Il Duce, the real thing nearly pales in comparison. Of course, there's a good reason for this, as the audience is kept at as much distance from him as Ida, leaving only a towering, unconquerable figure, a legend greater than the flesh.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 2-3, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 4. It also shows at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 9-10, and at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 11.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].