Vincere

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Director: Marco Bellocchio; Release date: 14 May

This is a film of Italian dictator Mussolini's rise to power through the story of the woman he left behind. Directed by veteran political filmmaker Marco Bellocchio, it is a sumptuous costume drama which revels in period detail and, while dramatically fairly conventional, has a force and energy to sweep along even those left unmoved by its central love affair.

Mussolini (Filippo Timi) begins the film as a charismatic, heretical socialist organiser and journalist, irresistible to young Ida (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who becomes his lover. She is only further beguiled by his cheating egomania, and Mussolini's sexual conquest mirrors his rapid conquest of political power (yes, the gender politics of the film are that simplistic).

Turning on his socialist brethren, Mussolini founds Italy's totalitarian Fascist movement, becoming the virile war leader who tramples all underfoot. Meanwhile, Ida is abandoned in a madhouse, insisting that she is the first wife of Italy's great dictator, who she still so desperately loves, and that her son (also played by Filippo Timi) his heir.

While on one level the film is an extremely po-faced reworking of He's Just Not That Into You, the relevance for modern Italy is serious indeed. A philandering, maniacally self-centred racial supremacist who reduces political antagonisms to the utmost of banalities deliberately recalls Italy's current right wing premier, Silvio Berlusconi (who holds more power than any Italian leader since Mussolini and whose government is in coalition with Il Duce's direct political heirs).

Like other recent films about Italian autocrats, for example Il Caimano and Il Divo, this treats its anti-hero as an enigma who rises to power not amid the struggle of contending social forces (the workers' movement is reduced to some cursory glimpses of the Socialist Party as a clutch of well-meaning pacifists) but through sheer force of personal will, the enchanted masses powerless to resist his populist charisma. Such representations chime with the historic loss of confidence of an Italian left currently bewildered into inaction.

In the modern Italian biopic, then, it seems that style fills this political void. And Vincere certainly is a stylish film. Its actors, sets, photography and costumes are gorgeous, while its excessive energy gives nods to Futurism (but don't expect anything particularly avant-garde). There is an exhilarating sexual charge to the action (which largely dissipates once the dictator leaves the stage and the film concentrates on Ida and her son) but, above all, the film is resolute, compelling and all too timely in its concluding conviction that the final victory (the "vincere" of the title) is the defeat of fascism.