Why so serious?

Theatrical Release Date: 04/02/2010 (USA), 05/20/2009 (Italy)
Director: Marco Bellocchio
Cast: Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, Corrado Invernizzi, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michela Cescon, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Paolo Pierobon

Benito Mussolini is remembered as the Fascist dictator of Italy, not so much as a great lover. In Italian director Marco Bellochio’s latest effort, “Vincere”, the story behind Mussolini, a mistress and their subsequent illegitimate son are put front and center, with his political and military exploits nudged towards the back burner.

“Vincere”, which loosely translates to ‘win’ in English, is actually more a study of this woman, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) – who had been involved with Il Duce (Filippo Timi) before his legally and religiously recognized marriage to Rachele Guidi. Dalser fostered his rise from union organizer to Fascist activist, even selling her belongings to help fund the newspaper he created (which would become the printed voice of the party). After he was injured fighting in World War I, Dalser learned of his marriage to Guidi and justifiably voiced her disapproval.

Mussolini isolated himself from Dalser, who would later be placed in mental asylums for the last 11 years of her life in order to keep her allegations as quiet as possible. This didn’t stop Dalser, as she would continue to assert her story, even after her son was taken into state custody and eventually institutionalized himself for repeated claims of being the heir to Il Duce.

The central figure of the story, Mezzogiorno ably navigates Bellocchio’s tangled narrative structure. As the film itself is a combination of different techniques and genres, so too do the actors shift from melodrama to straight as the need dictates. She manages to give some semblance of sincerity to a role that on the surface of things lends some credence to the notion of locking her up in an insane asylum.

The film takes many liberties with how to tell its story, not the least of which would be using the same actor as Benito Mussolini and also his illegitimate son. Often the film jumps forward to the next pivotal moment in Mussolini’s rise to power via archival footage, most actual newsreel material and others created specifically for the film. Also, a number of near operatic transitions are used to spice things up and really put a specific artistic stamp on the proceedings. These are intriguing but only serve to further confuse the mindset of the overall effort. Sadly though, about midway through the film, many of these highly charged scenes give way for a more subdued and somber look at Dalser’s struggles to be released and reunited with her son.

While I appreciate Bellochio’s vision, the jumbled nature of it all never settled into something cohesive for me. A 2.5 out of 5, the tone of “Vincere” seemed too flippant at times and too melodramatic most others. Having not seen any of his previous work, I would imagine that fans of his will probably adapt better and would recommend this to them on that basis but not to the casual fan of historic dramas, foreign or otherwise.