Dir. Marco Bellocchio
(2010, Not Rated, 125 min)
★ ★ ★

The highlight of Vincere is the performance of Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Ida Dalser, the abandoned and persecuted first love of Benito Mussolini. She supported his socialist ideals in the years leading up to the First World War, conceived his child, and was cast aside when he switched from socialism to fascism. The film, co-written and directed by Marco Bellocchio, approaches her story as grand historical melodrama, and she plays stubborn Ida with extravagant emotionality that grows rich with sadness and desperation when she is forcibly committed to a mental hospital. There is a scene where she’s questioned by a row of doctors at the hospital — inquisitors more than doctors, really — and the shots of her agonized face, as she realizes all power has been taken from her, are reminiscent of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Filippo Timi plays Mussolini with a ferocious zeal and force-of-nature charisma it would be difficult to resist. But even in his early scenes of romantic bliss with Ida, we can see how she is never the center of his universe the way he is hers. There is a prolonged love scene between them that is more sinister than loving. She clutches him desperately, but he looks past her, and when it’s over he sleepwalks to the balcony, lost in dreams of political ambition.

World War I is the turning point. While serving in the army, Mussolini marries another woman and disavows Ida and their son. After he ascends to power, Timi is replaced by stock footage of the dictator, who now seems larger than life, more myth than man, so even we begin to question Ida’s sanity when she claims to have been his wife. How can this lowly woman have ever been loved by someone of such ungraspable legend as il Duce? She may as well claim to have flown to the moon.

Everyone knows Ida was his lover and bore his child, of course, but because that information threatens Mussolini everyone collectively agrees not to know it. There’s an excellent scene in the asylum where Ida finds a lone voice of reason and support: Doctor Cappelletti (Corrado Invernizzi), whose view of the dictatorship is pragmatic. He advises Ida to become an “actor,” like everyone else who wishes to survive under Mussolini’s rule. “Do you think Fascism will last forever?” But she holds firm. Perhaps that was her fatal flaw. Or perhaps that was the only way to be remembered by history for who she really was.