Vincere -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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CANNES -- Marco Bellocchio is no stranger to dividing critics and audiences with his films, and the highly anticipated "Vincere" is unlikely to be an exception. Bellocchio's name and Celluloid Dreams' selling power ensure that it will play in numerous countries, but this true story begs the question, "Why should we care about a woman in love with and driven mad by one of recent history's most brutal dictators?"

The film begins in 1907, with young Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi, an established theater actor in Italy and a rising film star), a Socialist and union activist, provocatively "proving" that God does not exist to a spellbound group that includes the smitten Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, "Love in the Time of Cholera").

In 1914, they become lovers and her passion for the charismatic journalist is total -- she will sell everything she owns to help him start his own newspaper. Initially a pacifist, we see that Mussolini already has changed his political tune and is now supporting WWI as the only means to cleanse society.

The sex scenes between Mezzogiorno and Timi are steamy without being gratuitous and Bellocchio eloquently establishes a powerful carnal connection between the two that persists even after Mussolini marries. Ida continues to be his lover and in 1915 bears his son (also named Benito), whom Mussolini did acknowledge. However, when she starts demanding that he acknowledge their marriage, which to this day has never been proven, he exiles Ida and the boy to her sister's house, under the watchful eye of bodyguards.

Years later, she is still waiting for him, all the while writing to everyone from the police to the royal family for her rightful recognition and due from the man she loves blindly. Eventually, in 1926, her thwarted assassination attempt of one of his political ministers lands her in a mental institution, and young Benito in the care of nuns. The rest of the film follows her descent into even greater madness, for Ida never changed her story, insisting that her life and her truth be heard and remembered.

Throughout the film, Bellocchio intersperses black-and-white archival footage, fascist-era graphics and close-ups of women whose identities are explained much later in the film, to good artistic effect. He creates an intimate mood while alluding to the general feel of the highly chronicled era without going too far over the top or reconstructing elaborate sets.

The director also pulls career-high performances from Mezzogiorno and Timi that are, respectively, tragic and mesmerizing. They deserve kudos for making such controversial personalities engaging and real, and they lift the film notches above standard biopic fare. "Vincere" belongs to Mezzogiorno, as Timi disappears once Mussolini renounces Ida, only to reappear later as the dictator's grown son, who goes by a different name and can do uncanny impersonations of the country's leader.

But of all the women who have been abandoned and all the people unjustly institutionalized, how sorry should we feel for Mussolini's lover? It's not as if Ida Dalser was in love with a man whose worst deed was driving her to insanity, or that her personal tragedy offset her love of a hoodlum-turned-dictator.

The damage done by Mussolini as he ruthlessly rose to power and became a bloodthirsty ruler in his quest for domination is so much greater than the two destroyed lives of "Vincere" that the film simultaneously cancels the very empathy it evokes.

Festival de Cannes -- Competition

Sales: Celluloid Dreams
Production companies: Offside, RAI Cinema

Cast: Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michela Cescon, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Corrado Invernizzi, Paolo Pierobon, Bruno Cariello
Director: Marco Bellocchio
Screenwriters: Bellocchio, Daniela Ceselli
Producer: Mario Gianani
Director of photography: Daniele Cipri
Production designer: Marco Dentici
Music: Carlo Crivelli
Costume designer: Gaetano Carito
Editor: Francesca Calvelli

No rating, 129 minutes