Writer-director Marco Bellocchio's "Vincere" is an amazing, galvanic experience. It's about the hushed-up story of Benito Mussolini's first wife and child, but no one will ever mistake this movie for a standard biopic. It's too raw, too primal.
Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) first fleetingly encounters the young Benito (Filippo Timi) in Trent in 1907. In 1914 in Milan, before the outbreak of World War I, her passion for this anticlerical, antimonarchist union organizer and Socialist is once again triggered. Now a successful beauty salon owner, she sells all of her possessions in order to finance the newspaper he founds, Il Popola d'Italia, which becomes a central organ of the Fascist Party.
She also bears him a son in 1915, Benito Albino, and soon discovers that he has disowned them both and remarried. Marginalized by Mussolini's operatives, unable or unwilling to produce her marriage certificate, she is practically barricaded in her sister's home before being dragged to a mental institution, where her ravings about being Mussolini's wife fall on disbelieving ears. Bellocchio directs these sequences with an operatic flourish – Carlo Crivelli's great score is a real temperature-raiser – but the opera seems to be occurring entirely inside Ida's perfervid brain.
Bellocchio dares us to identify with Ida's righteousness but he also shows us the self-immolating consequences of her fury. Bellocchio, at 70, has made movies for more than 40 years bearing down on the bloody intersection of art, politics, and Roman Catholicism. For him, Ida is both heroine and holy horror.
She also symbolizes the agonies that fascism created and then attempted to hide from plain sight. Ida's story, until only recently suppressed, draws on two Italian nonfiction books and a documentary called "Mussolini's Secret," but there is nothing academic about "Vincere" (which means "victory" in Italian). The film has the accusatory force of an avenging angel.
Mezzogiorno's performance is so powerful that the screen seems to vibrate whenever she is in full throttle. She and Bellocchio bring out the erotic element in her political sacrifice. (An early sex scene between Ida and Benito is one of the most powerfully sensual ever filmed.) The psychosexuality of political allegiance is a recurrent theme in Bellocchio's movies, but in "Vincere" that theme is made frighteningly explicit.
Bellocchio periodically mixes in archival footage of Il Duce exhorting the crowds, and since the real Mussolini and Timi do not much resemble each other, the disconnect is initially jarring. But Bellocchio knows what he's doing: He makes us see the real Mussolini as a chimera that the dictator constructed for himself. This man, who begins the film disclaiming God's existence and ultimately aligns himself with the pope, is the essence of a shape-shifting political beast. His conscienceless cruelty toward Ida is all of a piece with his bullying amorality. Bellocchio is saying that Italy, no less than Ida, was deranged by Mussolini.
As harrowing as Ida's story is, her son's destruction is perhaps even more so. Both insanely idolatrous and vengeful, Benito Albino (played as a young man by Timi) cannot comprehend the mercilessness of the father he has never met.
In one of the most daring scenes he has ever filmed, Bellocchio allows an archival clip of an exhorting Mussolini to run on for what at first seems like an unconscionably long time, only to follow it with a scene of Benito Albino mimicking, to the point of panic and exhaustion, his father's speech word for word. Here, in microcosm, is the tragedy of totalitarianism and its impact on the human soul. Grade: A (Unrated.)