For Mussolini's Mistress, A Passion As Big As History

Giovanna Mezzogiorno

hide captionThe End Of The Affair: Giovanna Mezzogiorno plays Ida Dalser, Benito Mussolini's discarded lover and mother of his illegitimate child. The operatic Vincere shows Ida taking on the Mussolini machine — and losing.

Daniele Musso/IFC Films

Vincere

  • Director: Marco Bellocchio
  • Genre: Drama, Adaptation and Biopic
  • Running Time: 128 minutes
Not rated

With: Fausto Russo Alesi, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, Michela Cescon

Among the millions victimized by Italian fascist Benito Mussolini was Ida Dalser, a young beauty with whom he had a torrid affair while still an unknown journalist at a leftist newspaper. Mussolini may or may not have married her before moving right along to his official wife, but there's no doubt that Dalser bore him a son, whom he acknowledged but later repudiated, along with Dalser when she — to put it mildly — refused to go quietly.

The fallout from their unequal struggle is the subject of Vincere, a thrilling new melodrama by Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio. He's the director whose 2003 movie Good Morning Night explored the 1978 murder of politician Aldo Moro from the viewpoint of one of his Red Brigade assailants — so we know, going in, that Bellocchio doesn't readily divide the world into noble victims and wicked aggressors.

Vincere, which comes as close to grand opera as can be achieved without anyone actually bursting into song, feels like a big movie — handsomely mounted, full of dark shadows counterpointed with stray shafts of light, with dramatic close-ups of faces driven by passion and madness and heavy silences brutally interrupted by clashing tympani.

Yet the movie's scale is small and resolutely personal, filtering politics discreetly through character and individual destiny. Played with quiet ferocity by the stunning green-eyed actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who lost out to the better-known Penelope Cruz for Best Actress at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Ida is one of those women who, given the space to nurture her talents, might have become a rock star in her own right, yet chose instead to attach herself to a man she saw as more powerful than herself.

Then again, love may not be quite the word for their short, sharp affair, as passionate on her side as it is voracious on his. Thuggish even in the bedroom, Mussolini (Filippo Timi) doesn't so much make love to Ida as devour her. And still she ignores the chill prophecy in his inability to say the words "I love you" in any language but German.

Filippo Timi, Giovanna Mezzogiorno i i

hide captionBeauty And A Beast: The affair between Dalser and Mussolini (Filippo Timi) began while the future dictator was an unknown journalist at a leftist paper. Ida is nothing if not devoted to her lover — but Mussolini has no trouble letting her go on his rise to power.

Daniele Musso/IFC Films
Filippo Timi, Giovanna Mezzogiorno

Beauty And A Beast: The affair between Dalser and Mussolini (Filippo Timi) began while the future dictator was an unknown journalist at a leftist paper. Ida is nothing if not devoted to her lover — but Mussolini has no trouble letting her go on his rise to power.

Daniele Musso/IFC Films

This pair of monomaniacs may seem well-matched, but where Ida is a loyal absolutist who thinks nothing of selling her successful seamstress business to fund her lover's fledgling rabble-rousing newspaper, Mussolini, like many dictators, doubles as a canny opportunist. A serial betrayer in private as in his public life, he dumps Ida as casually as he abandons his faithful constituency of working-class socialists to ride a wave of middle-class discontent to power. When Ida fights back, he removes her son and has her thrown into a Ken Russell-style asylum filled with other discarded or inconvenient women. There she languishes for 11 tormented years, firing off angry letters to high-ranking officials, most of them already deep in Mussolini's pocket.

Whether Ida, who never repudiated Mussolini's crazed nationalism, was heroic or merely pathetic, Bellocchio won't say. The blazing recalcitrance with which Mezzogiorno invests this obstinate woman — who lacks all diplomacy yet never gives up protesting — rebuffs all pity. Yet it's impossible not to sympathize with her in one revelatory scene. Watching a Charlie Chaplin movie in the mental hospital (no, it's not The Great Dictator), Ida recognizes that it's not the loss of her man she must mourn, but that of her only child.

If Ida remains under the spell of Mussolini's preening, hands-on-hips public capers, little Benito's tragedy is that he knows his father for a fool — yet underestimates the limitless power of Il Duce over those whom the son might consider friends or allies. Known for dead-on imitations of the father he uncannily resembles, Benito Jr., too, ends his days a madman, working his jaws wide open in a horrible parody of his father's crazed posturing, which we see both in archival footage and in the arch mimicry of an actor.

Thus do Ida Dalser and her son tacitly hold up a mirror to the tainted soul of Italy, which eagerly bought into Mussolini's aggressive racist nationalism until he ravaged the country's economy, dismantled its fragile democracy and dragged Italy into fighting World War II on the wrong side. In a shatteringly beautiful image toward the end of Vincere, Ida climbs the bars of her prison and scatters her letters while snowflakes softly settle around her, erasing the past that this terrific movie firmly restores to history.

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