A dominating, confrontational son of an anarchist stands in front of a room of cultured men. They're in a heated discussion regarding politics, liberty, and the role of the Almighty in the current climate. After hearing a different, more theological approach, the podium is turned over to the young man for his more despondent take on reality. He asks for a watch and is obliged by someone in the front row. He sets it down next to him and demands that God, if he is real, strike him dead in the next five minutes. If he isn't stricken dead, then of course, there is no God.
Five minutes go by. His challenge is unheard. There is no God. The room turns into pandemonium. Onlooking believers cannot believe such callous irreverence. While the room turns into chaos, available and gorgeous Ida Dalser gazes awe-stricken from the back of the room, holding back a wry smile that never fades from her eyes. She can't believe what she has just witnessed -- a commanding and handsome young speaker who can totally overpower the opinions and revered worldview of others. His hold over her is firmly planted.
If only she'd realized his message before so quickly falling in love. If she'd realized the danger rather than be so quickly stricken at his aura, his ability to intimidate and trounce -- maybe then she wouldn't have loved a man who would ruin her life. She could have avoided his deception and all those endless, now empty, erotic nights, bypassing the damage of bringing a child into the world where a father's first love is for "the cause" -- making life for the boy worse than a "fatherless" one, but that of being known but unlovable by the one that should have loved him the most.
Maybe she wouldn't have discovered the wife, and maybe then he wouldn't have betrayed both her and their son. Maybe she'd never have known the cold confines of an insane asylum, with her little boy far from her reach, growing up in an isolated orphanage.
Dalser and son Benito were a historical foreshadowing of a bulldozing figure who dictated them into non-existence while gaining power to dictate over all. The figure is Benito Mussolini, Il Duce. He will rule and wreck Italy in the same agnostic and unapologetic way that he ruled and wrecked this estranged woman and their son. But Vincere is less about his rise to fascism and political control, and more about two who are left in the wake of his rise. Stunning performances bring Dalser and Benito to the front of this conspiratorial epic.
Vincere is a throttling film based on this true-to-life "secret." It is the second new Italian film I've seen in the past month to fully blow my mind. It is highly stylized, weaving all kinds of archived Italian WWI footage and an outrageously over-the-top operatic score into a melodrama that puts actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Facing Windows and Don't Tell) in a role that threatens to tear her character apart.
Like I Am Love, the foreign-language masterpiece still on urban screens, Vincere uses a classic film approach to make its case -- the language of the medium relating to itself -- but here it is abundant and much more obvious, with characters in movie houses taking in film screenings and news reels in a young and burgeoning film era.
Among the many movie house scenes, two key screenings bring empathy to Dalser's betrayal:
Mussolini, wounded from battle, makes a choice for one wife over the other -- both present -- as Christ in his suffering and death flickers sorrowfully overhead in black and white. The movie is Antamoro's Christus, a silent from 1916. Even in his ailing condition Mussolini is unconvinced at the sight of a suffering Savior. He cannot come to terms with his own sin; rather than confronting it, he seeks to hide it or wish it away. Dalser, in full retreat, is devastated.
Later, she is overwhelmed with feeling at a screening of Charlie Chaplin's The Kid. The sentimental story about a jeopardized relationship between a man and child brings her to tears. As the two are reunited at the end of the classic, her very spirit springs to life. It's a scene that reminds us of our own background when relating to the stories of the world. She's touched not only because it is a great story and film, but because it relates to her personal journey.
If Dalser would have stayed quiet about the identity of her son, she may have avoided years of being hidden away in a mental institution. If Benito would have stayed quiet about the identity of his father, he may have avoided death in an asylum, age twenty-six. But the mother and son in Vincere are the kinds of people from which real movies leap to the screen -- the kind who will scream at injustice, and writhe from the core of their being when reality has turned into real fiction. To see them as such reminds us to fight for the oppressed, to strive on in the face of indignity -- to hope beyond all hope for a better and truer world.
New to DVD in the past week, Vincere is a film that I missed in the theater, much to my own dismay. It would have looked larger than life on the big screen. But even seeing it in this format may put it on my year-end list when I reflect on the best of 2010. Between careful acting and hard, heart-felt performances, and expressive stylizing and editing that brings the pupils in your eyes to life, it is an amazing rendering of the other side of Mussolini -- one that is just as wrong, but less known than the side that rose to national power.