The strange case of Ida Dalser becomes a fertile metaphor for the fascist movement in Vincere, Marco Bellocchio’s operatic, ambitious sketch of Benito Mussolini’s rise to power. According to Vincere, Dalser met Mussolini in the early 1900s, when he was a socialist leader and journalist. She eventually bore him a son and sold all her possessions to help him start his own newspaper, but he abandoned her right around the time he abandoned his political roots, and took a new wife around the time he began to espouse fascism. Dalser tried to raise a public fuss to regain the attention of her former lover, but her very existence disrupted the fascist ideal of order, so she was institutionalized, left to scream her story to her jailers, like the last sane woman standing in a world of pod people.
Bellocchio tells the Dalser story with the help of stock footage, pumped-up drama, onscreen text, and a lush score. Giovanna Mezzogiorno gives a well-pitched performance as the heroine, always couching her moments of outright madness and hysteria in her frustration over being ignored; meanwhile, Filippo Timi plays Mussolini as a naturally charismatic demagogue more interested in power than principles. (By the end of the movie, Bellocchio replaces Timi with actual film of the dictator, emphasizing how he went from man of the people to an icon.) Vincere draws its energy from the contrast between the steadfast Mezzogiorno and an ever-shifting backdrop of people and places. In one of the movie’s snappiest recurring motifs, the jilted lover ducks the authorities by sneaking through a tunnel that looks like something out of a fairy tale. It’s as though she’s looking for the secret door that will lead her back to the world she remembers.
Vincere starts to run dry of stunning visual gambits and become redundant in its second hour, as the madhouse sequences dominate, but Bellocchio’s central premise retains its power and poignancy throughout. At one point, Dalser’s doctor encourages her to pretend she isn’t married to Mussolini, for the same reason the doctor pretends he’s a fascist—just to keep up appearances until the political winds change. Ultimately, the doctor has a point. True love may be hard to shake, but it isn’t like the Il Duce of the ’30s was still the same man that Dalser—or Italy—married.