Vincere: Bellochio’s Biopic of Mussolini’s Mistress

Cannes Film Fest 2009 (In competition)–“He erased me like I never existed, as though I were a ghost,” Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) says to a sympathetic listener in Marco Bellocchio’s furious, powerful story of the rise and tragic decline of the woman disinherited by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

 

Taken from Alfredo Pieroni’s book, “The Secret Son of Il Duce: The Story of Albino Mussolini and His Mother Ida Dalser,” it is a great story with a dynamic and brooding opening hour that the veteran director is not quite able to sustain in the second half. It is virtually impossible to dramatize the institutional decline of an individual. Nevertheless, the movie has the sweep, grandeur and passion of an epic.

 

 

 

Bellocchio is helped by masterfully inserting archival footage to set up context and time frame to propel the story. Whether offering footage of Archduke Ferdinand on the eve of World War I or Lenin during the Russian Revolution, the primitive and highly evocative imagery plays like a direct record of history and it pulls you in.

 

 

 

The opening is hypnotic. The furious, passionate hell-raiser Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) walks into a Socialist union hall and asks for a time piece. He sets it to five minutes. “If God does not strike me dead in five minutes, it proves he does not exist.” In one dramatic swoop, Bellocchio shows the early fiery and almost demonic personality that foreshadows his political rise.

 

 

 

Dalser first notices the dashing, lively Mussolini in Trent in 1907. The early passages shift between 1907 and 1914, detailing Mussolini’s formative experiences as a Socialist and pacifist. But Mussolini was also a brilliant political opportunist. The movie marks his transformation from a neutralist to a belligerent advocate of Italy’s aggressive military participation in the war during an electrifying encounter on the interior of a movie theater where aisles divide the political sympathies of each. The light emanating from the projector cuts through Mussolini, and he uses the platform to assert Italy’s nationalist agenda.

 

 

 

The movie’s opening half is dominated by two movements, alternating scenes showing Mussolini’s powerful oratory with intimate moments with Dalser that palpably link his rise to a strong sexual magnetism. Dalser is quickly hooked, drawn to his strength, power and authority. She sells all of her possessions to help finance Mussolini’s start up newspaper.

 

 

 

Their son Benito Jr. is born in 1915. She believes they are legally married, but is unable to procure the certificate. They are separated when he is called to the Front. Wounded in battle, Mussolini is honored by powerful Italian clerics for his bravery and valor.

 

 

 

It is at the hospital that Ida learns of the cruel discovery of Rachele (Michele Cescon), whom she learns Mussolini married afterwards. By 1922, Mussolini and the Fascist party are installed in power. Timi ostensibly disappears from the movie. In a brilliant move, Bellocchio now renders Il Duce exclusively through archival footage. As he consolidates his power, making a crucial alliance with Pope and the Catholic Church, it leaves the story of Dalser and her son with Mussolini suppressed from the public record.

 

 

 

She responds by making public her claims of paternity and legally bound. She writes a series of letters to Mussolini, the church, the state and leading newspapers, she is branded a fraud. Seeking opportunity, she approaches a political figure, only to be intercepted by the state authorities. Believing her a nuisance, she is institutionalized. For the remainder of her life, she was shuttled between a series of state hospitals, mostly controlled by the church.

 

 

 

If the second half of the film is a bit of a letdown, it is not the fault of the director or his talented cast. The first half is so powerful and dramatic compelling, the second half of decline and institutional repression proves truly sad and pathetic. The tragic inevitability stuns the dramatic possibilities and it cannot measure to the exhilarating opening half.

 

 

 

Even so, Bellocchio is a great imagist. The most stunning sequence of the second half finds Dalser scaling the iron bars of her sanitarium’s gates as a blinding snow covers her face. It is a stark and furious illustration of her oppression and enclosure. The dark velvet blacks of Daniele Cipri’s cinematography the night cinematography or the precise

 

 

 

In a bit of a confusing transition, the movie also explores the fate of the grown up Benito. The time jump is a bit erratic, moving suddenly from a young post-adolescent to suddenly a young man with little context or explanation. His story is now dovetailed with his mother’s, and the tragedy and sense of loss is no less profound or emotional powerful.

 

 

 

In “Vincere,” the Italian form of “victory,” the opening part’s sweep and majesty burrows inward to show the staggering personal costs of the abuse of power and authority. Ida Dalser was one of a great many of Il Duce’s victims, but her story makes for a very strong and compelling movie.

 

 

 

Cast

 

 

 

Ida Dalser – Giovanna Mezzogiorno

 

Mussolini – Filippo Timi

 

Rachele Guido – Michela Cescon

Young Benito – Fabrizio Costella

Paicher – Fausto Russo Alesi

 

Credits

A Rai Cinema and Celluloid Dreams production, in collaboration with Istituto Luce.

Produced by Mario Gianani.

Directed by Marco Bellocchio.

Written by Bellocchio and Daniela Cesselli.

Executive produced by Olivia Sleiter.

Camera, Daniele Ciprio (Color, 1:185)

Editor, Francesca Calvelli

Art director, Marco Dentici

Music, Carlo Crivelli

Sound, Gaetano Carito

Running time: 128 Minutes

By Patrick Z. McGavin