Dredging up a little known episode from the long-forgotten past, Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere is both an act of historical remembrance and an interrogation into the methods of history’s representation. As he brings to vivid cinematic life the story of Benito Mussolini’s prewar mistress, Ida Dalser, who bore Il Duce a son only to have the dictator reject both mother and heir, Bellocchio draws on his own set of counter images—pointedly contrasted with “official” representations—to spin his tale of a willfully buried history.
Beginning in the heady days before WWI, the film opens on then-socialist Mussolini (Filippo Timi) “proving” the nonexistence of God in front of an outraged crowd of peers, calling on a higher power to strike him dead within five minutes time and then declaring his point made when he goes on living as before. In these early scenes, Mussolini presents himself as a revolutionary idealist—an image fully embraced by true-believer Ida (Giovanna Mezzogiorno)—but the signs of a dangerous will to power, and a rejection of his lover, are already there. He begins comparing himself to Napoleon, a figure of hatred for his socialist peers, and in an early sex scene, Bellocchio isolates the pair’s heads so that as Benito pounds away at Ida, his bulging eyes and moustache emerge from the darkness, their owner already oblivious to Ida’s protestations of love.
Although Mussolini had previously recognized the son that Ida bore him in 1915 and, though according to Ida (the records were never found), the two wed in 1914, he married the woman who nursed him back to health while he lay wounded in a wartime hospital. In a pivotal scene, Ida comes to visit him on his sickbed and, after incurring the wrath of his new wife, Mussolini rejects her outright. For the first time in the film, Bellocchio films Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s face in full light. Whereas the early scenes took place mostly in a darkness whose principal effect was to obscure the heroine’s features, now the director turns the flood lights on his actress, suggesting not only her awakening intelligence of her situation, but, in conjunction with Bellocchio’s continued spotlighting of her face in the remainder of the film, a conscious intention to bring this forgotten figure out of the darkness of historical oblivion and into the light of the audience’s awareness.
Confined to a pair of lunatic asylums for the last 11 years of her life, Ida continually insists on the acknowledgment of her rightful position as Mussolini’s wife and her son’s position as his heir, a protestation seemingly borne as much from a desire to be granted her proper place in history as from any notion of personal advantage. As she rots away in confinement, the question of Ida’s sanity becomes a slippery one. Although it’s clear that she’s being unfairly branded as insane because of her politically inconvenient insistence on due recognition, she does, at least initially, cling to a stubbornly quixotic belief that Il Duce still loves her, even positing the idea that the whole confinement was simply a test. And as the years go by and Ida remains defiant in her insistence on the legitimacy of her marriage, the psychological strain of her situation, compounded by the authority’s refusal to let her see her son, becomes increasingly damaging. As embodied by Mezzogiorno’s ruddy performance, Ida bursts forth with passionate declamations, climbs the bars of the asylum and yells the truth to passersby, the whole lengthy sequence suggesting both a gritty determination and a genuine desperation, while avoiding the easy histrionics of such narratively similar moments as the madhouse scene in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling.
If Bellocchio’s film were nothing but a recreation of a forgotten historical footnote, it would stand as an accomplished bit of work and the discussion would end there. But crafting a skillful period drama is only the beginning of the filmmaker’s ambitions. If anything, Vincere is more interesting for what it says about the historical memory it revives than for that memory itself. From the start, Bellocchio introduces a generous sampling of period newsreel footage among his original material, often intercutting pointedly between the two, as in an early sequence when close-ups of Timi’s Mussolini alternate with future visions of fascist Italy. One of the film’s chief concerns is to show the way that history gets written through an official set of images and then to call on its own set of images to posit a counter-historical record. Thus, while Bellocchio employs plenty of stock footage of Mussolini (in fact, after about the halfway point in the film, Il Duce is seen only in stock footage), no such “official” material exists of Ida or her son, the filmmaker instead creating all these images himself.
Vincere is filled with numerous instances of film-watching, from the scene of the wounded Mussolini taking in a bibilical film from his hospital bed, the images of Christ seeming to inspire his superhuman ambition, to the several sequences of audiences reacting to newsreels at their local theater. These latter sequences are especially telling, since the newsreel represents an official version of history as constructed by a nation’s government and since they are designed to, and often do, evoke strong emotions in the viewer. In one scene, Mussolini and Ida sit in a theater while a newsreel announces Italy’s entrance into WWI, an item that becomes the occasion for a fight between the pro- and anti-war factions of the audience, situated (literally) on opposite sides of the aisle. As the two groups start throwing punches, Bellocchio films them as shadows set off against, and becoming indistinguishable from, the figures on the screen, a strategy that he employs in two subsequent scenes and which suggests the ability of official representations of history to reduce individuals to non-thinking players who have no more independent will than the celluloid figures into which they easily bleed.
But the visual image need not be only a means of oppression. In one key scene, late in the film, Ida and her fellow inmates are treated to a screening of a Charlie Chaplin flick. As the Little Tramp becomes separated from his young son, Ida is thrown into a state of fevered agitation that gives way to tears of relief as the two on-screen figures are reunited. Denied a similar reunion with her own offspring, Ida is granted a catharsis unavailable to her in real life through the artful manipulation of film images. In such moments, Bellocchio reaffirms the power of the movies to bring about a sort of redemption. And of course, this is exactly Vincere‘s own unique accomplishment, as the Italian master calls on his highly refined cinematic art to restore a forgotten woman to a historical record so often rewritten to serve the brutal demands of political power.