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In Marco Bellocchio's blazing Vincere, it is no picnic being the mistress of Mussolini

The Madwoman on the Adriati

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Marco Bellocchio's Vincere opens with a 20-something Benito Mussolini (the almost supernaturally charismatic Filippo Timi) standing before a roomful of people and attempting to prove God's non-existence by demanding that He strike him down within the next five minutes. The clock ticks away. Finally, a defiant Mussolini yells, "Time's up. There is no God!" as the room pretty much explodes in anger and confusion. The film ends (and I'm not giving too much away by saying this) with a replay of the same scene — only instead of time running out, Bellocchio cuts to archival footage of the end of Mussolini's reign, specifically a statue of Mussolini's head being crushed. God, it seems, was a more patient adversary than young Benito thought.

For anyone familiar with Bellocchio's work — and I grant that there may not be too many of us stateside — it's an odd finale, since the idea of a moral universe is pretty much anathema to his work. Marco Bellocchio is one of the great nihilists of the Italian cinema. He has spent five decades exploring Italy's social institutions — the family in Fists in the Pocket and China Is Near, the press in Slap the Monster on Page One, the military in Victory March, religion in My Mother's Smile — and pretty much finding madness and chaos at the heart of each and every one. It makes sense that much of Vincere, which may well be his masterpiece, takes place inside an insane asylum.

Actually, it could be said that the whole thing takes place inside an insane asylum, since Bellocchio depicts Italy in the first decades of the 20th century as a place of latent madness and grandiose irrationality. Intensely operatic, handsomely mounted, and at times unbearably dark, Vincere tells the story of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), a passionate and headstrong bourgeois who became Mussolini's mistress (back when he was a socialist). She financed his early political endeavors by selling off all her possessions, had his child, yet found herself suddenly out of favor as Mussolini became a fascist and grew into "Il Duce." Dalser may or may not have married Mussolini, but she did spend much of her life trying to establish her legitimacy as his wife — getting branded a nutjob as a result.

In Bellocchio's vision, Ida's journey does eventually become one towards some kind of normality, as she sheds her obsession with trying to establish an imaginary nuclear family with Il Duce. Towards the end, she is interrogated by a psychiatrist, who asks her things like the names of her parents, the year they were deceased, etc. It's a bracing, almost heartbreaking scene, because we realize that the film has told us so little about her: Until now, she has lived almost exclusively in the shadow of Mussolini (as has the film). Ida Dalser's story was not a happy one, but Bellocchio allows her a modicum of grace through this forced self-actualization.

But that can't hide the deep pessimism at the heart of this tale. In some senses, Vincere resembles Luchino Visconti's 1954 classic Senso, another historical film in which two flawed, almost unlikable figures were thrown together in a passionate historical embrace, with the inevitable rejection sending one off the deep end. Senso was, of course, partly an allegory, with Visconti suggesting that Italian identity was shaped against the crucible of historical betrayal. Bellocchio seems to be playing a similar game: Ida Dalser gains self-knowledge by passing through the fire of her obsession with Mussolini. And Vincere suggests that modern Italy found its own identity in the wake of the madness of Mussolini's reign. It's a depressing thought, but I told you the guy was a nihilist.

The Belcourt hosts an Opening Night Dinner and a Movie featuring Vincere 6:15 p.m. Friday, April 30. The $25 ticket includes baked ziti, salad, bread and cannoli from Savarino's Cucina and one glass of wine. For tickets and more information, see www.belcourt.org.

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