I can't speak with any authority about the historical accuracy of the incredible new film Vincere, but Marco Bellocchio's former Cannes contender indisputably proves that the truth does not always protect you. The story of Mussolini's first wife, Ida Dalser, Bellocchio's film examines not only the story, but the psychology of a tormented woman whose persistence to acknowledge her relationship with the Italian dictator eventually drove her mad. It's heartbreaking and slightly harrowing at the same time, but bolstered by amazing performances, first by Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Dalser and Filippo Timi as Mussolini and later, his child Benito, Vincere lives up to the translation of its title ("win") and then some.
At the beginning of Vincere, we see two sharp juxtapositions in the depiction of Mussolini: immediately after the future political leader denounces the existence of God himself, standing alone in a room as his opponents silently judge him, Bellocchio cuts to a scene in which he asks meekly for help from Dalser as the two of them huddle in the shadows just out of sight of his pursuers. This striking contrast, connected only by Dalser's uncontrollable and palpable attraction to both sides of the same man, provides an important foundation for the film's portrait of Mussolini – powerful and yet desperately needy, principled and yet opportunistic. In fact, it's this objectivity that projects our eventual doubts, suspicions, sympathies and frustrations on Dalser's plight, because we see the object of her affection – if not obsession – through the film, not her eyes, which creates a fascinating dramatic fulcrum against which her efforts to be recognized play out.
That said, much of the film reads like a bullet-pointed list of things not to do if you want to make a relationship work: after selling her business, her furniture and most of her clothing to fund his new newspaper, Dalser names their lovechild after his father, then refuses to accept the fact that he has another wife; she attempts a series of surprise visits while Mussolini is working; and even after she is literally incarcerated, refuses to acquiesce to her captors' request that she stop saying she's his wife – even at the cost of custody of her son. What's remarkable about the film is that not just Mezzogiorno as Dalser, but the audience as well gets to go through this kaleidoscope of reactions to story developments, and then, the sort of emotional reaction and judgment of her persistence. From outrage to exasperation to sympathy, Bellocchio manages to shuttle the viewer through this unexpectedly rich and complicated series of emotional states as the character's situation worsens, and most amazingly never at the expense of our identification with her.
Approximately halfway through the movie, it's basically acknowledged by even the nuns at the insane asylum where she is kept that she is in fact the wife of Mussolini, and Benito is her son. And while there are certainly those who are unsympathetic to her determination, a doctor speaks frankly to her about what to do, suggesting that she be "a great actor" and simply tell her captors what they want to hear, even if it isn't true. This simultaneous vindication and obstinacy makes the audience both hopeful and annoyed, leading to a few passages of "wow, this lady is crazy" before we settle back into caring about her and her son's well-being.
At the same time, Bellocchio seems to structure the film with recurring visual motifs that sort of dissolve from on to the next in larger thematic ways while his individual shots are gorgeously-composed and delicious to look at. The early scenes cut back and forth in time and the pair's relationship together basically plays out in shadowed locations or secluded rooms where others pass by windows and doors – a secretive world of obsession and romance acknowledged by only the two of them. Later, they begin attending the cinema regularly, and in addition to a series of back-lit shots against which the attendees act out silhouetted dramas, Dalser sees how Mussolini harnesses the power of film, and then becomes replced by it as his only presence in her life. And finally, when she is institutionalized, the duality of her and young Benito's confinement and loneliness mirrors one another as their sanity deteriorates and hope begins to dissipate and destroy even the certainty that her relationship even happened.
Again, the film prizes emotional authenticity over historical accuracy, and anyway this is a story whose details are so dubious that it's hard to know what exactly was true and what wasn't. But even if Dalser's knowledge she was the wife and her son the child of Mussolini was never fully recognized before she died, that we can feel and share in that longing, that desperation, that determination-on-the-brink-of-insanity, is in and of itself a victory, both for her and the film. In which case, Vincere ultimately triumphs because it connects an audience to those feelings, whether or not it does to the facts, and suggests that even if the truth didn't protect her in life, our compassion for her story does so after her death.