Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Ida Dalser in Vincere

At the end of the first full day of the 2010 Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF) I staggered in to watch Vincere after three interesting but not world-shattering films. The Vincere screening started well with a short called Uerra (War) (Italy 2009) – a beautifully shot social comedy set in 1946 and bearing some resemblance to Norman McLaren’s famous pixilated short Neighbours. In this case a fascist and a socialist replay war as an argument over playing cards only to be emulated by the fascist’s sons and eventually sorted out by a GI (who looks about 12). After suffering three well-meant shorts from the UK and Ireland (neither country having a great shorts culture, even if we do win Oscars for some of them), this looked very good.

Vincere grabbed me after about 30 seconds of the film proper and never let me go. I’ve always known about Marco Bellocchio as a filmmaker, but never managed to see any of his films (or at least none that I remember). What a fool I’ve been if this film is representative. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and winner of several other prizes, Vincere is a stupendous melodrama cum biopic/historical drama. It tells the story of Ida Dalser, a woman from Trento, which up to 1918 was controlled by Austria-Hungary even though the majority population was ethnically Italian. Dalser was sent to Paris to train as a beautician and eventually she opened a salon in Milano. Some time around 1907-9 she met Benito Mussolini in Trento where he worked as a journalist. They met again in Milano and fell in love (or at least she fell passionately in love with him). At this time Mussolini was a socialist, but he fell into the pro-war camp in the split experienced by the Socialist Party in 1914. In short order he married Dalser (although this is disputed) and fathered her son, Benito, before marrying again and joining up. After the war he disowned Dalser and her son (she had given him her all her wealth to publish a new newspaper). When he turned to fascism and began his rise to power, Dalser and her son were first billeted on her sister and then arrested by the fascisti. Dalser ended up in an asylum and the boy in a church boarding school. The end of the story is not good.

These bare facts reveal nothing about the melodrama which is expertly crafted. This is a melodrama that expresses its excess of emotion through lighting and cinematography, wonderful music and inspired production design. The latter is built around innovative use of newsreel and feature films. I think I need to see the film again to make the most of these sequences. If it does nothing else, the film reminds us of the importance of Italian Cinema in the period up to 1918. This is more than just a few newsreel inserts. On occasion animated figures overlay the film’s action. Much of the historical narrative is delivered via visits to the cinema by the principal characters and two unusual screenings stand out. One shows a wounded Mussolini in a hospital housed in a church with the crucifixion from a 1916 Biblical epic (Christus) playing on the ceiling and another sees Ida in the asylum but brought out to watch an outdoor screening of Chaplin’s The Kid which reduces her to floods of tears (she hasn’t seen her son for several years).

Mussolini and Ida at the cinema during the early stages of the Great War.

But melodramas always depend on the combination of music, camera, mise en scène and performance and the biggest impact for me was created by the playing of Giovanna Mezzogiorno. I realise that I’m easily seduced by beautiful women in sumptuous melodramas, but Mezzogiorno delivers a performance of great depth and intense commitment. She must present to us a woman is thought to be insane but is clearly functioning with a sharp mind, yet seems so blinded by her passion that she remains stubborn beyond the point when most of us would re-think our strategies. The film is about her – not about Mussolini, who in the second half of the film appears only in newsreels. Filippo Timi, the actor playing Mussolini, then appears as Mussolini’s grown-up son in the final third. It occurred to me during the screening that Mezzogiorno’s performance reminded me of the great Alida Valli in Visconti’s Senso (1954) – an equally sumptuous melodrama set in Austrian-controlled Northern Italy at the time of Risorgimento with Valli as an Italian contesa falling in love with an Austrian officer. The melodrama was, of course, also a popular genre during the 1930s.

The film is not a realist historical drama about the unfolding of political events – it is a melodrama about the pain of losing both a lover and a son and then losing a sense of self in a swamp of self-delusion. I’ve read several very negative reviews (alongside many positive ones) and quite a few are just silly. For instance, denying sympathy with Ida because she was in love with a fascist is completely wrong-headed. She fell in love with a man she believed to be a socialist. She couldn’t then fall out of love with him. Perhaps she just refused to recognise the change? Or perhaps she just wasn’t ‘political’ in that sense? The film isn’t about Mussolini as a man – or as a shrewd political operator. It’s about the mythical romantic hero she fell for and about the iconic and powerful dictator much of Italy was in thrall to. If we want to consider the political impact of unearthing this history at such a late stage (the film followed two books and television documentary) we might see it as a metaphor for the way in which the dictator’s charisma and power was channelled through propaganda and how a nation allowed itself to be subjugated. I confess that I was a little confused by the final scenes and I do need to see it again.

Why did this film end up on a small screen on a Friday night when it is unlikely that anything else in the festival will match it as a piece of cinema? Festivals need to focus on what is ‘new’ and what can be supported by introductions, Q&As etc. So this film wasn’t introduced. With the equally fine short it made a compelling programme and as I left the cinema the people around me were discussing the history of the period and marvelling at Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s performance. The good news is that Artificial Eye are releasing the film in the UK and there is a preview in Richmond on March 28th. The blurb for the film is spot on so I hope this means that the film will get a proper release.

An excellent review of the film can be found here.