They don’t make movies like “Vincere” anymore. The film, which was written and directed by Marco Bellocchio, is an operatic historical epic; it’s the kind of old-fashioned movie that sweeps you up in grand swells of passion, tragedy and romance and ends before you have a spare moment to make a snide remark. In short, it’s a melodrama and unapologetically so. You’re going to like that or you’re not, but “Vincere” moves forward with such audacious aplomb that how you feel doesn’t really matter.
The film centers on Ida Dalser (the stunning Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the mistress of Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and the mother of his bastard child, Benito Albino Mussolini. Although she and Mussolini have a passionate affair, he ultimately marries Rachele Guidi (Michela Cescon). Due to their potentially disastrous political consequences, Ida and Benito are kept under close government watch (and, in Ida’s case, captivity) until their tragic deaths in mental asylums at ages 57 and 26, respectively.
The performances are unabashedly classical. Timi is merciless in his brief screen time as Mussolini (he also plays the older Benito Albino later in the film). His eyes glimmer with a vicious intensity and his movements are brash and deliberate. Mezzogiorno acts as a counterbalancing influence. True, she is easily seduced and manipulated by his ambition, a drive which is completely apathetic to her existence, but she is ambitious in her own way. She, like Mussolini, is driven by a savage thirst for historical recognition. Her character deserves our pity, but that pity is complicated by our consciousness of her self-serving indignation. She and her son have been abandoned, but it’s not always clear what she’s fighting for: a normal life for her child, or her ardent belief that she deserves a place in the history books.
Despite any conflicted notions Bellocchio may have regarding Ida as protagonist, he never lets us turn our back on her struggle. In one particularly moving montage, he cuts back and forth between Ida clinging to the bars of her asylum, futilely tossing letters the world will never read and Benito Albino fleeing from his caretakers screaming, “I am Benito Mussolini!” If he sometimes flirts too closely with the line between poignancy and bombast, he also succeeds in painting a devastating portrait of a woman whose life cannot help but be overshadowed by the vulgar grandiosity of the era.
“Vincere” practically bursts at the seams with blood and tears, but its deft deflection of cynicism is refreshing. There are no tricks here and no irony — just a solid period melodrama about a woman’s desperate plea for her existence to mean something.