Giovanna Mezzogiorno stars in the stirring "Vincere." (IFC Films)
A passionate, bold look at power, paranoia and betrayal in a little-known corner of history, "Vincere" is steamy, sad and so Italian it feels like an opera.
Writer-director Marco Bellocchio seems little concerned with subtlety, plastering Big Words and Ideas across the screen in white letters, blending black-and-white archival footage with narrative scenes that seem to leap atop one another, and drifting here and there into forcibly surreal territory.
It's an effective, heady approach, and Bellocchio uses it to tell the story of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from a novel angle, that of his abandoned mistress, Ida Dalser, portrayed by the magnificent Giovanna Mezzogiorno.
We first meet Mussolini (Fillipo Timi) in 1907, when he's a socialist debating the existence of God. A crowd of onlookers turns against him, but a young Ida is dazzled by his strength of purpose and idealism.
Seven years later, she rescues him from authorities and becomes his lover. Soon enough she's obsessed, following him about like a groupie, selling all her possessions so he can start a newspaper, even though Mussolini already has a daughter with his wife.
Then Ida becomes pregnant and Mussolini has a son. But Ida, who's somewhat hysterical when it comes to love, pushes too hard, and Mussolini backs away just as he's ascending to real power.
Ultimately, Ida becomes such an embarrassment that she's tossed in a madhouse and the young Mussolini is sent off to a boarding school.
As Mussolini helps propel the march toward World War II, Ida initially deludes herself into thinking he's testing her, and then resigns herself to the recognition that she's a prisoner of the state.
It's the stuff of great drama set against great history, and the way Bellocchio blends the two is stirring indeed, juxtaposing choppy old footage with stunningly modern scenes that seem like religious paintings.
A thunder of smoke rumbling down a columned hallway as figures flee the specter of war; Ida clinging halfway up the bars of a madhouse as snow falls, tossing pleas for help to the uncaring outside world; naked women babbling and dancing around an asylum -- now that's Italian!
The irony is that Ida actually does act somewhat mad from the beginning, but at the same time she's telling the truth about her relationship with Mussolini. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.
The history here surely has more impact on Italian viewers, but it carries plenty of dark purchase for anyone. And the portrait of a callous Mussolini who becomes so enthralled with war and power that he abandons all else is both chilling and timeless.
"Vincere" means "to win" in English. It's hard to see how anybody in this story emerged victorious; in truth, the stubborn fight for victory ultimately dooms them all. But "Vincere" is indeed victorious, audacious, impassioned filmmaking.