One of the most surprising things about watching the wrenching “Vincere,” the story of Ida Dalser, Mussolini’s secret wife and his first-born son, Benito, is that when the relationship went sour and Ida just wouldn’t let it rest, that Il Duce just didn’t have her killed.
Though Ida’s life would become a torturous hell spent locked away in an insane asylum, the legacy left by her letters has made for an intense and intriguing, if at times uneven, film with Italian director Marco Bellocchio wringing every drop of emotion out of his actors and his audience before it is over.
The passion is palpable from the first frame as Ida, played with exquisite anger by Giovanna Mezzogiorno, first spots Mussolini (Filippo Timi in frightening form). Watch in hand, he’s giving God five minutes to prove his existence by challenging the almighty to strike him dead -- an early glimpse of the facile manipulator he would become -- while she’s just a face in the crowd.
That Bellocchio imagines the couple’s first real encounter as a stolen kiss in the street, with Mussolini’s head bloodied from a confrontation between police and protesters, sets the tone for a relationship that would be defined by the forces of lust, power and pain.
The story unfolds on two levels -- the personal and the public -- with Bellocchio moving between the two to sometimes confusing effect. To tell of the growing unrest in Italy and Mussolini’s rise along with the Fascist Party, he delves into the troves of archival footage understanding how potent those historical images could be, and how impossibly costly they would have been to re- create. Meanwhile, the filmmaker keeps the color palette of the rest of the movie rich, but muted, to soften the shift between the black and white newsreels and Ida’s unfolding story.
As a filmmaker, and a prolific one at that for the almost 50 years he’s been at it, Bellocchio has long been intrigued by politics and political figures, and he brings all that to bear in “Vincere,” giving the film a sense of historic authority. Still early on in “Vincere,” there is a lot of cutting back and forth in time, as Bellocchio, who wrote the film as well, pieces together the many details of their complicated back story, much of it drawn from recent documentaries and books on Ida’s existence. But with the break in their relationship comes clarity and the film finally finds its footing.
The film suggests the final rift came when political life forced Mussolini to choose between Ida and the woman who would become his public wife. Ida was suddenly an inconvenience who quickly became an issue as she tried to assert her rights, demanding recognition for herself and her son. And for a time, Mussolini did acknowledge the child though eventually the birth records would be lost and the page in the parish registry that is thought to have recorded Ida’s marriage would be torn out and destroyed.
Mezzogiorno channels the passion of their torrid affair into the unrelenting defiance that would sustain Ida over time. There is a moment when one of the nuns in the asylum leaves the door of her cell open. She scoops up all the letters she’s written to officials decrying her plight and throws them through the bars and out into a snowy night. As the letters fall with the snow, hope should die as well, but there is an electricity in Mezzogiorno’s portrayal that makes real this woman who would neither bend nor break to Mussolini’s will.
Almost as powerful on screen is Timi, who is chilling as Mussolini, making his charisma come to life with a force that makes his iron-fisted hold over a woman, as well as a country, understandable. What is even more affecting is later in the film when Timi steps into the role of Ida’s son as a young man. Like his mother, Benito becomes an irritation and is also locked away. The images of him imitating his father, intercut with footage of Mussolini playing to the crowd, are riveting, the parody frighteningly on point.
Bellocchio builds this tragedy bit by bit, infusing the facts with a searing humanity. Ida would be asked to recant her claims throughout her life. She never did.