In contrast to Francisco Franco, his Spanish counterpart who displayed little interest in the subject, Benito Mussolini never neglected the social importance of cinema; indeed, on opening the world-famous Cinecittà studios in 1937, he stood in front of a massive sign bearing a slogan he had coined himself, “Cinema is the most powerful weapon”. Though, as Peter Bondanella points out, recent archival work has suggested that the actual propaganda content of the films produced during World War Two was minimal, the shadow of the Mussolini name still looms large over the industry’s history: as well as his government’s construction of Cinecittà, his son Vittorio was a noted film critic and heavily involved in establishing the careers of Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. and even the top prize at the Venice Film Festival proudly carried the Mussolini name for the first years of its existence.
The Mussolini years also saw the foundation of the other major pillar of the modern Italian film industry, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the important filmmaking school which would one day count one Marco Bellocchio as a graduate. There is, then, a sense of Oedipus-like patricide to Bellocchio’s making of a film which paints Il Duce in such an unflattering light, but then the 70 year-old director has taken dysfunctional families and their internal psychologies as his central interest from his debut film – the intensely savage domestic drama Fists in the Pocket (1965) – onwards, so it ought to be of little surprise that he eventually turn his attention to that most notorious of Italian father figures.
Vincere takes as its main subject not Mussolini himself but Ida Dalser, his first wife and the mother of his first-born son, but who the dictator-to-be expediently came to deny all knowledge of during the course of his political ascent. The film traces two parallel narratives – Ida’s own personal story and the story of Benito’s increasing prominence in political affairs. What may loosely be described as the first half of the film charts Ida and Benito’s chance meeting and eventual romance; the young Mussolini is painted here as a firebrand atheist and left-wing agitator with an immense personal magnetism, with whom the rapt Ida is overwhelmingly enamoured. They marry, and she eventually sells all of her possessions to help him set up his newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia, but it soon emerges that he has married another woman, Rachele, and fathered a daughter with her. Ida is subsequently abandoned and painted as a mad obsessive, prevented from seeing her husband, and eventually incarcerated in a series of psychiatric hospitals for the remainder of her life for protesting the existence of their marriage.
In the film’s first half, Mussolini is a very real presence in Dalser’s life, but as Dalser is placed under police surveillance and eventual imprisonment, what we see of Il Duce is increasingly glimpsed only through newsreels, portraits, and even at a later stage a large bust which his unrecognised son sends crashing to the floor in disgust. From the very personal view of the very passionate man established in the film’s first half, all that is seen of Mussolini in its second half is that famously gurn-like public face, monstrously grimacing and gesticulating wildly in front of baying crowds. It is not just his personality which has changed; a complete political volte-face has seen him change from republican atheist left-wing pacifist into warmongering Fascist in alliance with the King and the Pope.
The film, then, invites the viewer into drawing a parallel between Mussolini’s treatment of Dalser and his chameleonic political transformation, both of which demonstrative of his characteristically Machiavellian ability to recast himself according to expediency. In this sense, it is a continuation of Bellocchio’s best films of the 1960s which posited that dysfunctional personal lives are both the cause and effect of a wider dysfunctional culture; where Vincere differs from those though, as well as placing it apart from Bernardo Bertolucci’s more famous The Conformist (1970), is that instead of offering a psychosexual explanation for the causes of fascism, Bellocchio seems to be presenting Mussolini’s conversion as much more straightforwardly stemming from an overriding, all-consuming ambition.
This simplicity makes for a much more accessible film than one might associate with the director. Dalser’s steadfast refusal to deny that she was ever married to Benito – an admission which would likely see her freed from institutionalisation – paints her as an anti-fascist heroine, refusing to submit to a lie for personal convenience, and Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s powerful central performance makes for a moving portrait of a woman completely unable to understand or accept her husband’s betrayal. Carlo Crivelli’s score, by turns bombastic and pulsating, raises the drama far beyond realism and into the heights of operatic tragedy.
On this plane of melodrama, Vincere functions well, but as political polemic it feels unsatisfactory. The film’s first half feels rushed, necessarily crammed with inserted pieces of newsreel footage illustrating the political situation which gave rise to Mussolini’s ascent, but at the expense of allowing breathing space for the characters to become fully delineated. As such, when Dalser is spurned, the viewer is left as confused as she as to the reasons for her abandonment, and these are never satisfactorily resolved later in the film. This serves the drama, and allies us well to Dalser’s point of view, but offers little in the way of insight into the character who is of real interest in the story, Mussolini himself.
Vincere, then, represents something of a compromise: that the chief interest of the story is absent for most of the film’s duration presents a challenge which it only partially meets up to. Yet there are moments of genuine brilliance: in one comical early scene, the young Mussolini foments a fight between partisan pro-war and anti-war supporters inside a cinema, the calamitous violence onscreen replicated in front of it, both continuing to be scored by an increasingly frantic silent film accompanist at the piano. Later, the grown-up son of Mussolini – played by the same Filippo Timi who portrayed the young Benito Sr – struts around aping the comically grotesque figure he has seen on newsreels of the father he never knew. Both scenes – comic and tragic – point towards the social function of cinema as a reflection of – and shaper of – society, a dual function that Mussolini’s own recognition of gave rise to the birth of modern Italian cinema.