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Rated 3.02 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Shushing Celebrity Scandal
by Donald Levit

With wives, lovers, flamboyance, grandiose monuments, advocacy of increasing the country’s already high birth rate, and a more ignominious death, Duce/Leader still never gained the celebrity sexiness of Leader/Fuhrer. Many younger people today cannot quite place the name Benito Mussolini, and despite its excellence on several fronts Vincere may not remedy that.

First, Americans shy away from subtitles, even though director/co-scenarist Marco Bellocchio’s engrossing semi-experiment comes with a slew of awards and festival appearances including 2009 Toronto, Telluride, New York and Chicago. More to the point, it is less about politics and power -- although this, too -- than about naked ambition, obsessive love, and madness. That the plot inciter involves political celebrity cover-up is ho-hum amidst the current every-second-day revelations of covert shenanigans in high famous places.

At its center are a strong Filippo Timi as the rising Mussolini and, in a shattering performance, Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Ida Dalser, the faithful lover, maybe wife, and mother of his first-born son, the woman he cast aside and worse than ignored in the name of expediency.

Alongside the two leads is an arresting splicing of past as well as present color story with black-and-white archival footage, plus inserted institutional mug-shot IDs, visions or dreams or mental flashbacks, visual referencing of cinema culture, and a very few unfortunate but fleeting animated frames. Calling itself “political melodrama,” this stew of actuality, reenactment and drama is not documentary but with luck will usher in a hybrid type to balance the tired formula du jour of historical-and-headshot.

Just about all paper-trail disappeared -- or was made to disappear -- but this story clearly takes the side of Ida, unknown today but, in rumor then and legend now, the woman who sacrificed everything to kick-start the dictator-to-be only to be herself forcibly and falsely institutionalized as insane, tortured mentally as well as physically, denied all communication with their son, and die alone and unheeded.

The time-switching occasionally is hard to follow but no great matter. The protagonists meet in 1907, by accident -- or fate -- when, fleeing carabinieri, the bloodied street radical literally falls into her arms, and her bed. The actor-as-Mussolini is a hunk, but Sylvia Plath was also close to the core that “Every woman adores a Fascist”; in this their first encounter, in the very act of love Benito’s gaze is directed above and beyond the ecstatic woman below him.

Throughout the affaire, indeed, she remains the sexually aggressive partner. He, on the other hand, is unfixed, a chameleon opportunist quick to stand wherever events demand, his skin of populist workers’ socialism to be sloughed whenever convenient. He reviles “the bloody clown of a Victor Emmanuel [III]” but accepts that midget king’s medal; he is pro- and anti-war, xenophobic and internationalist; isolationist and interventionist, Socialist and Fascist; anti-Socialist and –Communist: “I changed my mind!” he thunders at the Socialists who drum him out of the Party and editorship of their Avanti!.

Ida sells flat, furniture, jewelry and business to bankroll this man afraid of mediocrity, to help his Fascist organ Il Popolo d’Italia. His “brute heart of a brute” cannot say “I love you,” and, after their rumored but unprovable marriage and the birth of son Benito Albino Mussolini, he then married -- or remarried -- the mother (Rachele, played by Michela Cescon) of his five-year-old daughter.

For a man on the make wary of the Vatican and careful of his public image, Ida’s insistence that he recognize his marriage with her and the legitimacy of their child became an embarrassment. She and the son (Fabrizio Costella as a boy; later Paolo Pierobon as the ill-fated adult) are spied on, shunted to and confined in a country house -- the film unfairly proposes undisclosed documents hidden there in a stuffed bird. Her refusal to knuckle under or stop writing (undelivered) to Mussolini, Pius XI, politicians, the media, leads to stricter measures against both mother and son.

Long deluding herself that love bears it out to the edge of doom and that “you hate me because you still love me,” Ida collapses into a sad heroic figure, asking for her dignity and her child. The principals’ fates are summarized in end-titles, but the essential tale is not about particular destinies, or about particular politics, either -- future humiliation in Spain, Greece, Ethiopia is beyond the purpose. Rather, Vincere (which means to win) is concerned with the extremes of love and ambition; the sketched historical or hypothetical rest is merely the arena. 

(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)


                                                                                                                                                                               
 
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