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Particularly since Benito Mussolini came to power as a newspaperman, let us not bury the lead: According to Marco Bellocchio's Vincere, the fascist dictator was nearly as much of a bully in the bedroom as he was in office.
Il Duce would eventually get busy with the Pope, but in the mid-1910s, he screwed—and screwed over—one Ida Dalser, who becomes this epic melodrama's nobly suffering Jeanne d'Arc. Bearing Mussolini a son, Dalser, like her young Benitino, was banished to an insane asylum for the rest of her days. Hell hath no fury, indeed: Complete with thunder and lightning, sex scenes and street riots, booming orchestral music and fascist slogans splayed across the screen, Bellocchio's immodestly mounted production is an operatic critique of the violent force with which a woman was written out of His Story.
This is nothing completely new for Bellocchio, whose best films of the past five decades—beginning with Fist in His Pocket in 1965—have trafficked at the clogged intersection of history and family. Vincere, though, is the veteran director's stylistic knockout, a movie whose audacious editing fully captures the hot and heavy relationships between past and present, sex and politics, reality and, yes, cinema. Half an hour in, a newsreel trumpeting the entrance of Italy into World War I inspires its polarized Milan audience to break into war themselves while the film is playing, Bellocchio illustrating the power of movies twice over. (Later, Charlie Chaplin's The Kid wanders into view, reminding Dalser of her loss.)
Played with eyes bulging and veins popping by Filippo Timi, Il Duce is introduced, pre–World War I, giving God five minutes to prove His existence by striking him dead. God instead takes nearly 40 years to do the deed, allowing Mussolini to grow from socialist union organizer to a major player in two world wars. But in a curious way, Bellocchio—lording over his own universe—reverses that growth. Timi appears as Mussolini only in the film's first half, replaced by tattered newsreels that inevitably foreshadow the dictator's humiliating fade to black.
Meanwhile, as played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Dalser goes from being the recipient of Il Duce's thrusts (and a funder of his fascist paper) to a towering figure of sorts, tough as nails even when incarcerated. A fiercely committed actor, at least the equal of Antichrist's Charlotte Gainsbourg (who snatched last year's Cannes prize out from under her), Mezzogiorno does a full-on Maria Falconetti number here, quivering half-stoically in close-ups as her character is condemned by an all-male jury. Climbing the bars of the asylum as snow falls (a gorgeous image in a film that's full of them), Dalser manages to elevate herself even at her lowest point.
Its title translating as "Win," Vincere is a victory for the doomed Dalser only in the sense that she's finally gotten a camera's attention, but, of course, that's a lot. "You're my woman," Il Duce tells his secret lover early on in the movie. "So be quiet." Her refusal to do so is Bellocchio's cause for celebration—and his audience's good fortune.
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