“Vincere,” which in Italian means “to vanquish,” is the quasi-historical story of a young Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and Edith Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno.) Dalser fell in love with Mussolini while he was still a penniless journalist for a socialist newspaper; indeed, she sold her successful seamstress business to fund his paper. From the moment she meets him – he asks her to hide him while running away from the cops, and then end up making out in the shadows – it’s clear she is utterly obsessed with him, and willing to do anything for him. He takes advantage of this, while clearly remaining distant and noncommital. Obviously, it’s not a healthy relationship.
And then, suddenly, the relationship ends. Suddenly not just for Dalser, but for us, the viewer, as well. We skip ahead a few years, Dalser approaches Mussolini to tell him that she’s carrying his son, and he kisses her. Then an aide hurries her out of the room, because the “real” Mrs. Mussolini is approaching. Where she came from is never explained; the timeline is made even fuzzier by the fac that she has several kids in tow. Her arrival in the film is abrupt and bizarre, and, I think, intended to be that way. Though it seems it can hardly have been that way in real life, according to the cinematic logic of “Vincere,” Edith Dalser’s life suddenly changed – one day she was Mrs. Mussolini, and the next, someone else was going by that name.
There isn’t an iota of restraint in the filmmaking of “Vincere.” Violent, passionate, vulgar, stylish, and kind of silly, “Vincere” shoots for the moon, and sometimes lands among the stars. Other times, it lands in the mud. The first half hour are mostly sex scenes, which go on at least twice as long as they need to. It’s edited to catch your attention, it’s full of stunning and often hammeringly symbolic images, and it incorporates actual newsreel footage into its story – in fact, in the second half of the movie, Mussolini is played by himself, showing up only in media footage, because that’s as close to him as Dalser could get.
He rejects her. She pursues him. He rejects her some more. She writes letters to the pope. He has her imprisoned in an insane asylum. She declares herself “ready to forgive him,” and one wonders if she isn’t a little bit insane after all. Her son is taken away from her, and from her family, and is raised in a group home. He grows up doing impressions of his father and insisting to the nuns that his name is Mussolini, not Dalser. Eventually, he loses his mind. This is not a story with a happy ending.
Mezzogiorno does fantastic work, especially in the second half of the film, as the suffering martyr, the woman who refuses to accept no for an answer, who remains faithful against all odds. Without her, “Vincere” would quickly grow tedious, as not much of significance happens after the halfway point; indeed, even with her great performance, it grows old before it ends.
There are probably a number of symbolic parallels between Dalser’s love affair and fierce devotion to Mussolini, and Italy’s. But here I have to claim ignorance – I really don’t know enough about Italian history to draw those out. I wonder how this movie plays for you if you are Italian, and of a certain age. There are depths here I am not able to plumb, I’m sure.