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Filippo Timi, second from left, as Benito Mussolini inVincere.

Il Duce's Discarded Devotee

Sixty-five years after his death at the hands of an enraged mob of his countrymen, Italian-fascist dictator Benito Mussolini still has his fans. Some Italians continue to pay visits to his grave to venerate his vile memory. Of all the crimes, legal and moral, he was guilty of, the ones exposed in Marco Bellocchio’s heated, unconventional biopic are among the least serious and the least known.

In recent years information—incomplete, suppressed, and largely forgotten—has spread regarding Ida Dalser, the mistress and alleged but unacknowledged wife of Mussolini, as well as the mother of his son, Benito Albino. Dalser was certainly a wretched victim of the Duce and his fascist regime, and of her mate’s cruel abandonment. She and the son died in the insane asylums to which they’d been consigned by an official conspiracy, undertaken, it appears, to shield the ruler from personal and political problems that revelation of the relationship would have entailed, particularly with regard to the Vatican, which endorsed his regime.

The celebrated veteran filmmaker Bellocchio (China Is Near) was himself ignorant of Dalser and her cruel fate until he watched a television documentary about her. He has said he didn’t set out to describe and condemn the dictator’s crimes and career, but rather to pay some kind of tribute to this forgotten and odd woman. He wanted to share his admiration for and fascination with her “absolute refusal to accept any kind of compromise.” And Vincere is, in its own fashion, devoted to Dalser’s very eccentric, obsessive, and possibly mad campaign to be recognized as Mussolini’s wife.

The film proceeds in quick, multiple scenes and episodes, beginning with the fateful pre-World War One meeting in Milan of Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Mussolini (Filippo Timi). From the beginning, she is a victim of her own passion for him, and her devotion to his ego and driving ambition.

Bellocchio is not interested in a conventional biography or historical treatment. He has marshalled a wide, and wild, array of cinematic technique and devices to depict events, actual and supposed, in Dalser’s miserable life with and without the Duce. Particularly in its first hour, Vincere it moves rapidly and with recurring surges of high emotion, acute drama, and sharply delivered sensation. With its dark, limited color palette, and its sometimes stark, chiaroscuro lighting effects, Vincere sometimes has a lurid, Gothic feel. The emotional intensity is often in sync with the look. In several scenes, it’s virtually operatic. Bellocchio cuts into and out of old silent archival footage, and imposes banner headlines and even animation over his imagery. Interspersed are big, outdoor shots and compositions that echo silent-screen masters like Abel Gance and Eisenstein, and once or twice Bellocchio seems to be quoting Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. In its second half, Vincere settles down and somewhat haphazardly follows Dalser’s experiences in the mental wards, but no one is going to mistake this film for sober docudrama. (Mezzogiorno gives an almost excruciatingly compelling performance.)

The case Bellocchio makes for Dalser, such as it is, leaves very much open the possibility that she actually was mad, however much the brutal treatment she received exacerbated her instability. The director appears more interested in spectacle than in biography. He may have wanted to convey the emotions Dalser’s tragic story evokes for him. Vincere is an often riveting cinematic experience, if something less, or other, than a reliable historical treatment.

Watch the trailer for Vincere

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