Benito Mussolini's delusions of grandeur reserved him his own personal corner of hell. Vincere, an epic of historical fiction, is heaven.
The film personalizes the long-rumored seduction and betrayal of his first wife and child. The movie opens with a turgid love scene between a young Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and even younger Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). But you see very little. Filmed in the darkest of shadows, you barely make out slight glimpses of human shape or form, but the breathless kissing and lovemaking are as intense as any adult film in years. A private wedding and a child follow. But then Mussolini kicks his wife and child to the proverbial curb as he pursues power. His rise to a despot is fueled by the masses of a war-torn Italy (the movie spans both World Wars). Ida learns that Mussolini has married another woman and fathered other children, and her love becomes jealously, which devolves into obsession.
Mussolini uses his power to dismiss her, then banish her and finally crush her soul. Her descent takes up much of the rest of the movie, and while it is excruciating to watch, Mezzogiorno's portrayal of Ida is brilliant. In one visually stunning scene, she climbs the bars of an asylum in a snowfall. It is as gorgeous a cinematic image as anything you will see this year. And that is what you will remember: the images created by director Marco Bellocchio and his director of photography, Danielle Cipri. The scenes, almost all dimly lit, are beautiful, featuring lightning, blizzards and street riots.
The movie becomes a big, bloated, wonderful opera of violence, cruelty and martyrdom. Timi plays Mussolini with flames behind his eyes. His stare burns the screen. About halfway through, Timi disappears from the film, displaced by archival footage of Mussolini. It was disappointing until the realization that Timi had reappeared, playing the son that Mussolini fathered with Ida. You don't recognize that it's the same actor, until he performs an impromptu impersonation of his father. It's transfixing. The two characters equal one great performance.
The movie is far from perfect. The editing gets derailed when the director abandons modesty. Bellocchio clearly wants us to feel Ida's desperation so he piles on scenes of her incarceration and commitment. The movie could easily lose about 20 minutes. That said, Vincere is that rare event: an epic. In the vein of David Lean's Ryan's Daughter or Warren Beatty's Reds, or even Coppola's Godfather trilogy, Vincere completely and totally fills the screen. It's big and lush, and the operatic score by Carlo Crivelli is ambitious. The costumes by Sergio Ballo are wonderful.
Maybe the biggest star of the movie is the darkness that pervades almost every scene. If you have a habit of entering a theater after the film has begun, it will be an eternity before your eyes adjust to the darkness. So a word to the wise: Do not arrive late to this movie.
There are a few surprise twists to this mystery, but history tells you that this will not end well. The word "vincere" is a reference to an Italian Fascist song: to win at any cost. But in the end, everyone loses ... except the audience. Vincere is a winner.