Il Duce-Bag: Turns out Mussolini was a bad boyfriend.
Il Duce-Bag: Turns out Mussolini was a bad boyfriend.

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History buffs can go digging for metaphors in Vincere, the story of the love affair between Benito Mussolini and a beautician named Ida Dalser. Mere anti-Fascists can revel in another portrayal of Il Duce that, though more personal than political, is harsh. But even if you don’t know—or care—much more about the man than Mussolini = Bad, the stormy romance at the heart of Marco Bellocchio’s film is sumptuous, gripping, and relatable to anyone who’s gone a bit batty over unrequited love.

There’s no bunny-boiling in Vincere, which bounces around the first three decades of the 20th century. But imagine what might happen if there were a woman out there today who claimed—passionately and repeatedly—to be President Obama’s wife, and mother of his child, without a shred of evidence. (OK, throw in the asterisk of this still being a world without DNA tests, camera phones, and 24/7 news.) Things weren’t always so cold between Ida (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Benito (Filippo Timi), of course. They met in 1907, when he was nothing more than a journalist and member of the Socialist Party. Several years later, she’s still head-over-heels but he starts tuning out, telling her that he’s “terrified of time passing” and itching to become a prominent voice during World War I. He wants to found his own newspaper; she sells everything she has to help finance it.

Developments in the story, co-written by Bellocchio and Daniela Ceselli, can get a bit confusing as the timeline shifts back and forth. But here’s the gist: Ida bears Benito a son and, she alleges, marries him. She eventually finds out that he has another wife and family, one he publicly acknowledges. Benito starts ignoring Ida (when he’s not off fighting in or otherwise contributing to the war). She freaks out, stalking him and his associates. Even after she’s institutionalized, Ida insists that they were wed. No, she doesn’t have a marriage certificate—it was destroyed. Riiiiiight. Here’s your straitjacket, sweetheart.

The war is never completely in the background, as Bellocchio includes real footage of the dictator, headlines whooshing at you, and scenes of fights breaking out among audience members during pre-movie newsreels. Most of the film is heavy with dark and shadows, with much of it taking place at night, colors perpetually drained. There’s also the occasional whimsical stylization, such as a tiny fleet of airplanes jetting across the screen or what seem to be cheerful mugshots of Ida in between some scenes. As the story goes on, though, it becomes clear that those shots reflect Ida’s state of mind.

Timi’s portrayal of Benito as he grows from politically minded nobody to infamous tyrant is suitably passionate and unhinged. But it’s Mezzogiorno who carries the film, and her fiery Ida—whether fueled by love or resentment—torches the screen. When pacifists are roaring against Benito and his push for Italy’s involvement in the war, he tells them, “You hate me because you still love me.” You get the impression that that’s not the case with Ida, especially when she has a wind-beneath-my-wings moment, saying, “If he is what he is, he owes some thanks to me.” But then she shows their little boy the gun she keeps with one bullet reserved for Daddy’s heart. Vincere here is translated as “Win,” and in every aspect, the title is apt.