History is written by the victors, one brutal stroke at a time. And in times of conflict, the truth becomes a theoretical and fluid idea, wholly dependent on agenda, ambition, and levels of aggravation of those in power. Humanity and sacrifice are buried under a mountain of bloody red tape, replaced by incomplete headlines and texts propagated by political magicians. Sadly and often tragically, singular visions get suppressed in favor of a potent, collective mirage.
With Vincere, director Marco Bellocchio envisions these problematic issues of history through the political and personal life of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (played with striking conviction by Filippo Tumi), a rising demigod who gains power almost organically throughout the first section of the film set during the 1910’s. Bellocchio introduces Mussolini at a political meeting, where he proceeds to renounce God and practically proclaim himself a deity. One onlooker in particular stands out, a beautiful woman named Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) whose shark eyes seem to roll back for the handsome young orator.
The two begin a passionate love affair that parallels Mussolini’s political rise, and Bellocchio inserts a genuine excitement into these early moments, as if the Italy’s rebellious cries will mirror Ida’s physical invigoration. But slowly and surely Ida becomes more of an annoyance to the ambitious leader, a dark stain on his legal marriage and family life, and her devotion soon turns to full blown delusion. Ida’s shift from hallowed mistress to national embarrassment occurs swiftly, and Bellocchio eliminates Mussolini entirely from the second half the film. Despite Mussolini’s absence, Ida continues to believe in the emotional/physical connection she once shared with “Il Duce”. It’s this adherence to Mussolini that makes Ida’s arc so tragic, since she truly feels her suffering will resuscitate this defining relationship, even after being placed in a mental hospital to quell her connection with the Prime Minister. Ida’s fantasies end up weaving a dangerous mosaic of expectations, a true enemy of the state.
Vincere spins the standard biopic on its head, jumping through time by leaps and bounds, centering history around emotional outbursts instead of events or dates. Bellocchio breaks up scenes with stunning interludes of stock footage charting Italian transition, archiving tone more so than information. Silent film aesthetics infuse every scene, centering on the heightened visual expressionism in Ida’s emotional descent. Shadows wrap around corners, faces blend into the darkness, and ultimately happiness becomes just an illusion. You can feel the heartache drifting through the mise-en-scene.
But ultimately Vincere suffers from emotional and aesthetic overload, plugging the viewer with fragmented visions of period-piece angst for over two hours. It’s exhausting watching Ida fall to pieces time and again, her plight fragmented by extreme time lapses and tonal shifts. This structure forces Vincere into a disjointed corner, where ambiguity reigns supreme and character gets pushed to the background. Bellocchio depends on Messogiorno’s incredibly physical performance to sustain the film, and for the most part she succeeds mightily. In a nice twist, the film refuses to contextualize Ida’s pain, purposefully isolating her from family, friends, and her lone child by Mussolini. However, this makes her more of a cipher than a character, an emblem of fascist oppression more than a woman.
Like Mussolini himself, extreme ambition undermines Vincere, leaving the viewer with a blurred reflection of this tumultuous, melodramatic fish bowl. Things fall apart, but never quite add up. And the cracks continue to grow, leaking the substance of historiography much too quickly for the characters to evolve and survive on their own.