‘Vincere’ uncovers Mussolini’s dark past

“I challenge God. I ask him to strike me dead. If he doesn’t do this in five minutes, then he doesn’t exist!” proclaims a young Benito Mussolini to an audience of religious members. All are outraged save for one: the young and beautiful Ida Dasler, who is instantly ensnared by Mussolini’s charisma. Vincere, an English-subtitled Italian film directed by Marc Bellochio, explores the drama, romance and tragedy of Dasler’s little-known story as Mussolini’s mistress, with Mussolini’s political career as a unsettling backdrop.

Dasler (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) falls in love with Mussolini (Filippo Timi) rather suddenly, and her obsession becomes a pit she cannot crawl out of until far too late. But even at the height of their relationship, Mussolini never acts like a tender lover. His ambition and cold-heartedness are obvious to the viewer, if not to her. He meets Dasler’s repeated entreaties of “I love you” with silence. The darkly shot love scenes during their courtship obscure all of his features except the lighting of his eyes, which glint menacingly down onto Dasler. He does not tenderly touch her face when they kiss, but instead grabs her neck as if choking her. And, in a metaphorical sense, he is choking the life out of her. The relatively well-off Dasler sells her beauty parlor and jewelry to fund Mussolini’s political ambitions. She gives everything she has to this man that she adores, bearing him a son and marrying him – though she remains unaware that the marriage was never legalized.

During World War I, Mussolini soon becomes a loyal follower of the powerful monarchs and kings he denounced so fervently earlier in his political career. His politics completely shift from socialism to fascism. Socialism and the starving proletariat of Italy, it seems, were merely political devices for the ambitious Mussolini. Similarly, Dasler has outlasted her usefulness. Having stolen her wealth and youth, Mussolini becomes publicly involved with his other lover, Raquele, and marries her legally.

Dasler, however, will not leave her lover quietly. She burns with jealousy and pines after Mussolini, seeking him out and trying to tempt him back. The rising dictator refuses to acknowledge her and calls her crazy. Desperate, scorned and venomously angry, Dasler sends out letters to government officials and the Pope, hoping in vain for the legal or religious system to bind her lover to her. But Mussolini has already become too powerful. He takes action in order to keep their relationship a secret, eventually throwing Dasler into an asylum to silence her.

One of the most notable elements of Vincere was its operatic music. Ominous voices joined in chorus as the action unfolded. Major plot events were often accompanied with explosive crescendos or violin glissandos. The movie itself almost felt like an opera as occasionally, the actors would burst into patriotic songs full of socialist or nationalist rhetoric. This over-the-top music style gave the film a dramatic, theatrical feel that closely matched its subject matter.

Despite the film’s focus on Dasler’s tragic life, it incorporated authentic historical moments to add a documentary-like feeling. Scenes were interspersed with live recordings of Mussolini’s speeches and battle footage from newsreels at the time. The director squeezed images of Lenin and the Russian Revolution between the conversations of Dasler and Mussolini. A lovemaking scene was followed by voices singing “Guerra! Guerra!” and a barrage of propaganda posters briefly filled the scene. Even though Dasler’s tunnel vision creates a world with only her and Mussolini, history and the political climate cinematically overpower her.

The plotline, regardless of its seeming simplicity, was difficult to follow. Knowing the story between Dasler and Mussolini beforehand helps, but the average moviegoer could have easily become confused. In addition, while the film is mostly in chronological order, a few of its historical clips foreshadowed later events, not Mussolini’s contemporary ones. Strong surrealistic and symbolic elements to the film further convoluted the narrative.

Though the tragic second hour of the film empathized with Dasler and her suffering for daring to tell the truth, it felt long in comparison to the first hour, with its quicker-paced action. Overall, though, Vincere made up for the lag with its unique theatrical elements and spot-on acting. Mezzogiorno did an excellent job in portraying both the young, alluring Dasler and the older, bitter and desperate Dasler.

When a psychiatrist at the mental asylum urges Dasler to be quiet about the truth, she asks the chilling question, “If I don’t shout the truth, who will remember it?” Over half a century later, in spite of Mussolini’s attempt to stifle Dasler, Vincere has told her story.