Movies: Vincere * * *
(15A, limited release)
Witnesses of Mussolini's early political career often spoke of his extraordinary charisma and mesmerising star quality. Old Benito had a way with the crowds, and a way with the ladies too if this powerful but uneven historical drama is anything to go by. Directed by the veteran Italian film-maker Marco Bellocchio, Vincere is based on the true story of Ida Dalser, who certainly had a passionate relationship with the dictator and may or may not have been his first wife. We do know she bore him a son, and when Mussolini marched to power in 1922 and started a new, legitimate family, Dalser and her child became enemies of the new Fascist state.
In Bellochio's epic and grandly operatic film, Mussolini (Filippo Timi) is abruptly and powerfully introduced as a hot-blooded socialist agitator in the years before World War One. As a young man, Mussolini was profoundly anti-clerical, and we see him shock a village gathering by daring God to prove he exists by striking him dead within five minutes. "Time's up!" he announces, "God doesn't exist." Watching from the crowd is an amused and enchanted Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), and when she sees Mussolini several years later during a Milanese riot, she offers him protection from the rampaging police.
They begin an affair and, according to Bellochio's film, they also married, though there's no documentary evidence of this. Dalser is totally devoted, to the extent of selling all her valuables to fund Benito's socialist agitating. But when World War One erupts, a bloodthirsty Mussolini falls out with the peaceniks in the Italian Socialist Party, and charges off to war. The seeds of fascism are forming in his mind, but when he returns from the war, there'll be no place for Dalser or her son, who'll be persecuted for years in a series of asylums.
In the first part of Vincere, the swagger of Mussolini and the heady appeal of his simplistic politics is powerfully conveyed in bravura montages and set-piece scenes. Timi is superb as the dictator, catching his ridiculous peacock posturing without losing the underlying menace. But midway through the film, he disappears without a trace, as the story shifts focus completely to concentrate on the trials of poor old Ida.
This is frustrating, because, memorable though some of the asylum scenes are, Ida's travails soon become boring and we find ourselves wishing this was a fully fledged Mussolini biopic and that Timi was its star.