Who would have guessed that a biopic — about Benito Mussolini, no less — could have turned out so avant-garde? Although it’s consistently overshadowed by its (admittedly) superior Cannes competition “The White Ribbon,” the Italian film “Vincere” still has its strengths. “Vincere” disregards conventional biopic mechanisms in favor of a taut, yet occasionally overwrought, dramatic storyline.


At the Michigan
IFC Films

“Vincere” — aptly, the Italian word for “to conquer” — follows Mussolini (Fillipo Timi, “Saturno Contro”) from his induction into the Socialist Party to the end of his dictatorship, focusing mainly on his alleged marriage to shopowner Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, “Love in the Time of Cholera”). Dalser famously bore him a bastard son, Benito Albino, whom he never acknowledged, though she swore to the grave that he had signed a marriage license indicating they had been wed.

By omitting the traditional “this is where he started” bits, “Vincere” immediately catapults the audience into the center of the action. The film is remarkably operatic, with clamoring swells and swoops in the soundtrack that rival the likes of “Amadeus.” Director Marco Bellocchio (“Good Morning, Night”) makes skillful use of old 1930s film reels, masterfully juxtaposing grainy World War I propaganda with scenes from the film that flash and fade out of sunken-eyed victims in mental hospitals just as the opera voices billow and subside.

Where “Vincere” succeeds most is in exploring the concept of sex as a mechanism of character. Before Mussolini comes into power, he is seen subjugating Dalser, foretellingly, in much the same way as his ascent to his dictatorship. In one particularly harrowing scene, Dalser spreads herself naked on a comforter, having sold all her possessions in order to fund her lover’s Socialist newspaper. “Say you love me, just once,” the needy Dalser begs. In true fashion, Mussolini responds by violently pressing his lips against hers, obscenely ravishing her naked body. The image fades out, and a troop of advancing soldiers marches across the screen, preliminarily connecting the bedroom to the battleground before the historical events happen.

Yet the problem with “Vincere” — as with all biopics — is that it comes off as quite one-tracked, essentially focusing on Mussolini’s pathway to power through his character and personal relationships. Once the dictator leaves the film halfway through, following his abandonment of Dalser to a mental institution, there is fundamentally no more film. The audience is left to deal with Dalser’s theatrics in the absence of a powerful male figure.

As a pure Mussolini biopic, the melodrama would have worked wonders. As an Ida Dalser one, it’s a bit too much, as Mezzogiorno screams obscenities, psychotically flinging letters onto the ground and generally raising havoc among the ward. Her performance is powerful, but her character is simply neither interesting nor sympathetic enough to carry the film by herself. Viewers can’t identify or sympathize with Dalser’s overtly masochistic tendencies, and her hysterics get a little old.

Also, those who did not grow up during the age of Mussolini might not be able to feel the full force of the causality between the dictator’s private history and his public persona. “Vincere” is a distinctively Italian film, and American watchers might get the feeling that they’re missing out on something. One can’t help but feel that, had the cultural context been there, the film would have been rendered more potent.

If the first half were taken in isolation, “Vincere” could be applauded as a greater film, portraying the gripping story of a dictator ravenous for all aspects of power, sex and love. While the second half isn’t terrible, it falters tremendously in contrast, gradually and destructively losing steam with every second it goes on.

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