[ City Paper Grade: A- ]
Benito Mussolini may have been a fascist ideologue, but Marco Bellocchio's Vincere suggests that he was also a spectacular lay. Ducking into an alley to escape the police, the young Benito (Filippo Timi) bumps up against Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), and within minutes they've locked lips and then hips, their bodies writhing in near-darkness as she cries out in ecstasy. After his bellicose philosophy splits the Italian socialists in two, she sells her possessions to finance a print organ for the new movement and bears him a son, also named Benito. But Mussolini has more grandiose aims, and their sexual chemistry turns out to have little to do with love.
Pushed aside in favor of a more palatable spouse — the movie intimates that a desire to curry favor with Catholics and the church may have been involved — Dalser and son are confined to an asylum, their existence drowned out by the shouts of the mob. The septuagenarian Bellocchio has investigated the dark side of ideology before, most recently in Good Morning, Night, which chronicled the fatal kidnapping of an Italian prime minister by left-wing extremists. But where that movie was sober and introspective, Vincere (the imperative form of the verb "to win") is hot-blooded, bordering on overwrought.
Staging several key scenes in cinemas, including one where Mussolini incites a violent confrontation between rival factions on the eve of the first World War, Bellocchio takes his cues from silent-film aesthetics, particularly the rhetorical formalism of Eisenstein and Vertov. Fascist slogans zip out of the screen like 3D projectiles; Mussolini's excitement over the prospect of war calls for operatic wails and printed cries of "Guerra! Guerra!" Its first half filmed in glimmering darkness, the movie's second gives way to blinding sun and snowy expanses, as if fighting the imposed night of state-ordered oblivion. Either way, Vincere's images are indelible, if oddly romantic, as dangerously seductive as Il Duce himself.