Watching Marco Bellochio's feverishly assembled Vincere, I realized that I'd almost forgotten the power of great cinematic imagery. Vincere -- the story of Ida Dalser, a woman Benito Mussolini evidently married but quickly discarded -- is a passionate account of a woman victimized by Mussolini and a reminder of the power of big-screen imagery. Bellochio's film is full of examples of people watching films – newsreels, a Charlie Chaplin movie and even a depiction of the crucifixion of a suffering, swooning Christ.
Each of these film fragments serves Bellochio's narrative in different ways, but the point that we take from all of them is that movies are as complex as the people who watch them: Some people are moved by the beauty and emotional power of what they see. Others are brought to tears by the simplicity and innocence of a character. And still others use images to advance their monstrous ambitions.
Now when I'm talking about imagery, a few clarifications must be made. Many people regard a movie such as Avatar as an example of heightened visual attainment. But Avatar, with its fluid use of 3-D and its creation of an entire extra-terrestrial world, has more to do with expanding the moviegoing experience than with creating imagery that carries the weight and meaning of a scene. It's a case of sensation over substance.
While I was thinking about the sometimes-overheated style that Bellochio employs throughout Vincere – which can be more operatic than most operas – I wondered if this veteran director wasn't trying to remind us of the primal power of cinema. In that sense, Vincere is both an urgent emotional drama and a vivid act of restoration, a manifesto about the power of the image.
Bellochio structures the movie in ways that underscore the ability of film to destroy the forward march of time. He leaps between years and locations, sometimes leaving us feeling slightly lost. He inserts newsreel footage into the proceedings, and uses a desaturated palette. He super-imposes one imagine over another. It may be a stretch, but I thought that the swell of Carlo Crivelli's score and the scale of the emotions evoked the emphatic brilliance of silent films, giddy days of cinematic discovery.
The story may be mostly unfamiliar to American audiences, and even Bellochio, who's now 70, didn't learn about it until late in his life. In his early days, Mussolini was a charismatic and ardent socialist. He met Ida Dalser during this tumultuous period; she became infatuated with him. She was attracted to Mussolin's audacity and to his sexually. She also believed in his ideals.
Dalser made a key mistake, though. She thought Mussolini shared her feelings. To Mussolini, Dalser became an increasing annoyance, particularly after she told him she was pregnant.
For public consumption, Mussolini married another woman, the nurse who tended to his health after he was severely wounded during World War I. That marriage better suited Mussolni's desire to sculpt a heroic image. At one point, Mussolini recognized the son he'd had with Dalser, but later denied any connection with the boy. Increasingly, he distanced himself from Dalser, who was imprisoned in an insane asylums because she insisted on telling the truth. She said she was Mrs. Mussolini.
For all of Bellochio's dazzling embellishments, Vincere would have foundered without two exceptional performances. Giovanna Mezzogiorno portrays Dalser, a woman who sold all her possessions to help finance Il Popolo d'Italia, the newspaper that the aspiring dictator used to launch his career. She gave up her life for Mussolini, expecting appreciation and loyalty in return. Instead, she became an emotionally wounded woman shunted aside by the storm of history. She died at the age of 57. Dalser's son, Benito, suffered a similar fate. He too was institutionalized. He died in 1942 at the age of 26.
Both Mussolini and Dalser's son as an adult are played by Filippo Timi, who embodies the brute force of Il Duce, a physical man with a sense of his own dynamism. Late in the movie, Timi has a chilling moment as Mussolini's unrecognized son. He gives his face a frozen, mask-like quality as he mimics a fist-pounding speech his father delivered in German. It's a moment full of rage, torment and mocking cynicism.
Bellochio chooses not to show the machinations that led to Dalser's banishment. We never see Mussolini orchestrating her fate. It's almost as if Mussolini is whisked out of the picture midway through; the character Timi plays increasingly gives way to shots of Mussolini in newsreel footage. The man who made the transition from socialist to fascist disappears inside his own image. Il Duce is born.
Bellochio doesn't need to tell us that Mussolini was a monster. Instead, he focuses on Dalser's plight, which – in its own way – shows the tragic price of yielding to charisma, of what can happen when passion overwhelms reason.
I wish I could say that Vincere is a perfect movie. Its fractured narrative can be off-putting, and it sometimes tries to sweep us along on a tidal wave of emotion that reaches bodice-ripping proportions. But Bellochio has told an intriguing story in a style that turns the movie into a fevered dream that's strewn with the wreckage of abused power and ruinous passion. Bellochio may be 70, but time has not dulled his cinematic vigor.