As fascists go, Benito Mussolini, credited by most textbooks as coining the ignoble f-word and laying the philosophical foundations of national socialism, has been designated by historical memory to the comic sidekick of the far more malevolent Adolf Hitler. Anyone who has seen archival film of the bald, melodramatic dictator can perhaps understand this reputation. However, given the comic turn Hitler has taken lately in Inglorious Basterds and the controversial German comedy Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, it seems apt that seasoned Italian filmmaker Marco Bellochio takes this moment to reconsider Il Duce through a more serious lens.
Bellochio’s “Vincere” tells the disputed story of Mussolini’s (Filippo Timi) secret first marriage to Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). When Dalser meets Mussolini in Trent circa 1908, he is a passionate socialist and atheist, dedicated to the destruction of the Catholic Church and the regime of Victor Emmanuel III. Dalser is drawn to his zeal, and by 1914 in Milan, the two are established lovers. When Mussolini breaks with his socialist comrades, Dalser sacrifices her business and apartment to provide startup capital for his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia. She becomes pregnant by him, and thereafter starts referring to him as her husband. Only later does she learn of Rachele Guidi, the other woman more familiarly known as Mussolini’s wife. After Mussolini rises to power, Dalser persists in claiming he is her husband and the father of her son, Benito Albino Mussolini. For her actions, Dalser loses her son and is imprisoned in mental hospitals for her remaining years.
Bellochio weaves this narrative of politics and passion with a style both operatic and propagandistic. As Mussolini undergoes his idealistic transformation, capitalized words such as “Guerra” (war) fly at the viewer in a parody of agitprop cinema. A continuous aria guides the romantic drama, and as Dalser progresses towards inevitable heartbreak, the two forms tug in different directions, as if challenging the viewer to choose a version of the events. Bellochio cuts away to quick montages of women in mental asylum garb, which not only foreshadows Dalser’s fate, but reinforces that what he shows us is not verified fact but speculation. When Bellochio finally presents the debated wedding ceremony between Dalser and Mussolini, it is told from Dalser’s perspective in the asylum. By adopting the standpoint of questioned sanity, Bellochio creates a cinematic dilemma: although he entices us to not buy her version of events, should we cast doubt, we are no better than her fascist interrogators.
The second part of the film becomes a much more straightforward telling of events, perhaps because Dalser’s life thereafter was more closely documented (fascists being notoriously fastidious record-keepers). Dalser’s heartbreak becomes a metaphor for Italy itself under Mussolini. Like her country, Dalser is beguiled by his passionate speeches and steadfast beliefs, then literally driven mad when the image of the man she loves falls to pieces. Her “madness” gives her an advantageous perspective: she has heard Mussolini viciously mock Victor Emmanuel III as a “dwarf,” then watches the two men shake hands as Mussolini lies wounded in a war hospital; she has heard him openly challenge the existence of god, then uses the church to consolidate authority on his rise to power. It may be a fairly standard irony to have the mad be the more sane, but given the historical surroundings, it is quite effective.
Bellochio captures the corrupt soul of fascism perfectly with two sequences towards the end of the film. After showing documentary footage of an actual Mussolini rally, he shows a young adult Benito Albino, now played by Timi in a brilliant double turn, who executes an absurd but pitch-perfect imitation of the same speech for his peers. Later, as Benito Albino literally rots away in an asylum, he looks at himself in a mirror and performs the same grotesque act. The bastard son, whose father acknowledges an entire country as his but refuses to acknowledge him, becomes a living Dorian Gray portrait for the whole political ideology.