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DRE #444020

Film Review


After watching archival news footage of one of Mussolini's speeches, we wonder how it was possible for him to have become prime minister of Italy (in 1922), to lead it into fascism, and finally the disastrous alliance with Hitler. How could this buffoon of a man captivate an entire nation, and wreck it? Marco Bellocchio, the Italian director (Good Morning, Night) who has been producing films since the early 1960's, shows us young Mussolini, as a handsome, charismatic radical with an almost pathological need for power, who builds a fascist political party that ultimately takes control of Italy. And wow, does he show us! We watch the most dramatic production that you can imagine on a screen.

Vincere (which translates as win or conquer) is generally historically accurate. It opens with Mussolini at a small political meeting in 1907, where he challenges the existence of God by borrowing a man's watch, noting the time, and says "I challenge God. If he does not strike me dead within the next five minutes, it is proof that he does not exist." No lighting bolt strikes, he returns the watch, and basks in the applause. But a woman in the audience, Ida Dalser, played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Love in the Time of Cholera) is captivated by him, and shortly later she hides him from the police during a riot. He doesn't even know her name, but they kiss passionately. He leaves, and she looks down at her hand, now bloody. But the assassination of the Archduke in 1914 by an anarchist in Sarajevo changes everything, which ultimately triggers the First World War. There is some very dramatic archival footage of long black flags being unfolded from the face of a medieval building, then the funeral procession for the Archduke. Although Mussolini was an ardent socialist, he urged the government to abandon its neutrality and enter the war against their northern neighbors, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who were allied with the Germans. The Socialists through him out of the party, but Italy went to war, poorly led and equipped, and suffered a number of defeats with heavy casualties. One of them was Benito Mussolini, who we see in a hospital bed, decorated by a general, all the while watching a silent film projected on the wall of Christ being crucified. Now he had his fighting creds and he used them well.

Ida began a long obsessive affair with Mussolini, and an early scene shows them making love, she very aroused, but he not ever looking at her. Mussolini goes out on the balcony, still naked, to see what he imagines are huge crowds cheering him. The crowds are more archival footage. They live together for a while, and one day Mussolini returns home to find most of the furniture and paintings gone, but a large stack of money on the table. Ida has sold everything she owns, including her dress shop business, to raise money for Mussolini's new newspaper. He is stunned, but accepts. It is arguable that this single act of love greatly aided his political career and its ultimately terrible consequences for the country. Ida becomes pregnant, not knowing that Mussolini has long had another wife and children. She later claims that Mussolini had married her in a church ceremony, but he abandons her and their son. She is furious, invades political meetings, embarrassing Mussolini, until finally she is thrown into mental hospitals and her son taken away to be raised by nuns. The scenes in the hospitals are unforgettable, although not for the reasons you might expect. Predictably, the story has a sad end: for Ida, for her son, and for Italy. Mussolini himself was captured (1944) by Italian partisans, killed with his mistress, and their naked bodies hung from a lamp post in Milan. None of this is shown except with a printed coda.

It is rare that such a powerful film also manages to illumine an important but little known piece of history, and that is what Bellocchio has done here. He has deliberately dramatized already dramatic events, and used silent film techniques that often duplicate some of the footage we see in his film. The visuals here are simply fantastic, including much archival footage that has rarely been seen. Not just historic footage, but parts of silent films, such as a wonderful Charlie Chaplin film of a heartless eviction. His mix of this footage and the film's story is seamless. The acting is outstanding, with an exaggerated quality from the silent film era. Lighting is similar: dramatic shadows and unusual camera angles. The soundtrack is gorgeous, with an amazing spectrum of music, from Wagner to Bach chorals to John Adams. I loved Vincere and cannot recommend it enough. Bellocchio will be most remembered by this film. Just opened at the Clay.

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