Marco Bellocchio’s “Vincere” is a knockout blow to the legacy of Benito Mussolini. The first half of the picture, chronicling his rise to power and love affair with Ida Dalser, mixes an array of silent and talking footage into a emotionally walloping piece of early 20thCentury Italian history. Carlo Crivelli’s operatic score rouses the images to life, with Belloccihio, although he incorporates dramatic singing into just one scene, directing the whole of it with the dynamics of musical theater.
With Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Dalser and Filippo Timi playing Mussolini, the picture begins with one of the hottest love scenes of the decade. This is kissing as it should be done, with trembling pulse and yielding lips. Bellocchio makes no attempt to eroticize the couple with rich lighting and glistening flesh. Passion is enough. It is disconcerting, however, to discover that Mussolini is even more passionate about military matters, and the sweat of an agitated crowd on the eve of war gushes from his conjugal bed, leaving the poor woman behind in an agony of sensual devotion.
When Mussolini is wounded in the war and marries his nurse, the movie settles into the telling of Dalser’s story. She spends much of her life incarcerated for claiming to be Mussolini’s real wife who has borne him his first son and legitimate heir. As the dictator rises to power, Dalser falls into ruin. The film begins to drag as the story becomes repetitive with continued proclamations of her marital status, but Mezzogiorno’s excellent performance, along with the stunning cinematography that includes an unforgettable low-angle shot of Dalser climbing the bars of her cell on a snowy night, keeps the audience in thrall.
In these times, when every other German film is re-writing history to whitewash their Nazi heritage, Bellocchio’s portrait of Fascist Italy does not pull any punches. His relentless hatred of the former dictator seethes from every frame. One of his most painful allusions to the burden the Italian people bear in the wake of Mussolini’s reign depicts the supposed son to the dictator performing a frighteningly primal imitation of Mussolini’s speeches that is weighted with self-loathing and fratricidal anger. In contrast, the smashing of the statues is a particularly joyful event for the director, who relishes the crushing of the stone heads as if he himself were squashing the real one.
The title translates as “Win,” which is reminiscent of the use of strong action verbs as the single word titles of propaganda films. Contrarily, Bellocchio could be using it as an abstract verb to capture the emotion of the act rather than its accomplishment. The picture resounds with the clamor towards victory, but it is not until the leader is dead and the people freed of their delusions that Italy picks herself up from the calamities of war and begins her victory walk.