By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2010)
Have you ever noticed something about movies set in mental hospitals? More often than not, there’s at least one character who thinks he’s Napoleon; or Jesus, or Elvis (you get the idea). I’ve always wondered if that cliché is based on fact. I couldn’t tell you from any personal observation-because I’ve never been committed (yet).
In 1920s Italy, a mental patient named Ida Dalser had a good one. She would claim repeatedly, for the benefit of any or all within earshot, that she was the wife of that country’s leader, Benito Mussolini (who was in fact married-but to another woman). She also insisted that her son, Benito was Il Duce’s firstborn and therefore his “rightful heir”. “Yes, of course you are,” they would assure her, rolling their eyes as they handed her meds. Funny thing is, she really was the mother of Mussolini’s firstborn son; although to this day there remains no official documentation that the marriage took place.
Actually, she wasn’t really crazy. Crazy in love, perhaps, but she wasn’t nuts. Unfortunately for the doomed Ida, she died of a brain hemorrhage in 1937, in a psychiatric hospital. Her son suffered a similar fate, dying in an asylum in 1942 at age 26. Mussolini’s history with Dalser was kept a state secret during his regime, and remained undisclosed to the general public for a number of years afterwards. Writer-director Marco Bellocchio has taken this relatively obscure historical footnote and elevated it to the level of a classic baroque tragedy in an exquisitely mounted new film called Vincere (Win).
The film picks up their story in pre-WWI Milan, where Mussolini (Felippo Timi) is a struggling self-employed journalist, and Ida (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) is running a beauty salon business. Attracted more by his persona rather than by his politics (he was a socialist acolyte at the time), Ida becomes 100% devoted to her lover; at one point she even sells off her business to help keep his self-published newspaper afloat. In a cleverly written scene, he vows to pay her back every lira, melodramatically drawing up an IOU like a world leader composing a proclamation (a portent of the clownish theatricality he would adopt once he did become a world leader).
However, his eventual “payback” to Ida was not exactly reciprocal in sentiment. Following the birth of their son, Mussolini (a textbook narcissist) begins to distance himself from Ida, Much to his convenience, storm clouds gather over Europe and Mussolini runs off to join the army, leaving Ida puzzled and hurt by his emotional (and now, geographical) distancing. When she visits him at a military hospital, she learns to her chagrin that the woman attending him is not his nurse-but his new wife. Her nightmare is only beginning.
Bellocchio makes an interesting choice. Just as Mussolini disappeared from Ida’s life, leading man Timi virtually disappears for the film’s second half, with archival news reels of the real Mussolini taking his place to update the viewer on his career trajectory, whilst Ida’s life turns into a Kafkaesque nightmare.
You see the method to the director’s madness, however, when Timi reappears in a memorable scene as Mussolini and Ida’s now college-aged son. He entertains several of his fellow students with a pitch-perfect reenactment of a Mussolini speech that has immediately preceded the scene in one of the aforementioned archival news reels. His pals are impressed by his spot-on impression of Il Duce (although they don’t really believe that he is Mussolini’s son, as he claims to be).
The first half of the film, which examines the couple’s relationship, reminded me at times of Reds or Doctor Zhivago, with its blend of passion, politics, and historical sweep. It is important to note, however, that this is not a film that sets out to detail Mussolini’s rise to power; it is really Ida’s story, which is more intimate.
That being said, as Ida descends further into a living purgatory, getting shuffled from institution to institution, having her identity, freedom, and eventually her son co-opted by “the state” (which is to say, her ex-lover), you could take away an allegorical lesson here about the ugly politics of fascism. Then again, one could also say that “seduction and betrayal” sums up politics in general.