Veteran Italian writer-director Marco Bellocchio (Fists in the Pocket, Good Morning, Good Night) returns with this thunderous melodrama, which powerfully fuses form and content to relate the tragic story of Benito Mussolini’s secret first wife, the Austrian-born Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). A beauty shop owner in Milan on the eve of World War I, she begins a passionate affair with the then left-wing agitator Mussolini (Filippo Timi), and she soon bears him a child, Benito Jr. By now Mussolini has aligned himself to the Fascist cause, and completely disowns her in favour of his official wife Rachele (Michela Cescon). And Ida’s increasingly frantic attempts to gain official recognition from the Fascist authorities for herself and her son see her incarcerated in mental institutions, with Il Duce determined to rid all traces of his socialist past.
Taking its title from the Fascist slogan ‘Victory’ or ‘Win’, the operatically scored Vincere is much less a traditional biopic than a tumultuous work of counter-history. Bellocchio orchestrates a spectacular and delirious mixture of archival newsreel footage, clips from silent movies, Futurist-style flourishes and fictional re-enactments. This post-modern collage is not just an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of a particular era: the film itself is expressly concerned with how fascism was constructed through visual imagery, with cinema being an important motif. What happens to Ida is an allegory for how the Italian nation was seduced by the undeniably charismatic demagogue. In the opening scene for example she is enthralled by how the young firebrand challenges God to strike him down within five minutes to prove his existence, and the sexual encounters between her and Mussolini have a palpable forcefulness. During the second half of the film however, she never actually meets her former lover in person: instead she has to watch images of the strutting dictator exhorting fervent crowds, further fuelling her own obsession.
It’s an axiom that films about the past reflect contemporary concerns. Despite Bellocchio’s own protestations, it seem hard to ignore the parallels between Vincere and the cult of personality surrounding the current Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, another ruthlessly opportunistic showman. Stars Mezzogiorno and Timi deliver powerfully physical performances, and it’s telling that Timi is also cast as Mussolini’s abandoned grown-up son. The latter’s frenzied impersonation of the dictator’s grandstanding oratory conveys a passing down of malign forces to the next generation.
Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 14 May. GFT, Glasgow from Fri 21 May.