Contributed by Niamh Cullen
Currently showing in the IFI and Lighthouse cinemas in Dublin, Vincere (meaning ‘win’), seems like a fitting title for a film about Mussolini’s younger days and his rise to power. Told from the perspective of his then mistress and fellow revolutionary Ida Dalser, the film follows his early career as editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti! in the heady atmosphere of turn of the century Milan. A leading member of the young, revolutionary contingent of the socialist party, the young Benito broke with the party’s pacifist stance in 1914 and rushed to support the war. In his eyes, war was the perfect opportunity for Italy; a chance to bring about excitement, revolution and national glory. According to the film, it was the ever admiring Ida who sold her draper’s shop to give Mussolini the capital to start his own newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia. It was through this new daily that he began to build up the mass following that, with the help of his Blackshirt militia, would propel him to power in 1922. Soon afterwards, Ida and Benito’s paths separated. After the war, having abandoned his revolutionary lifestyle for the respectable image necessary for his political career, Mussolini returned to his wife Donna Rachele. Left alone with their child, and convinced she was actually his rightful wife, Ida was unable to forget Mussolini as easily as he had cast her aside. The film follows their troubled lives against the background of the continued rise of fascism. Mussolini and fascism are only present in distant glimpses from then on – in statues, newspapers and newsreel footage – but even as the figure she sees from afar develops into the remote, imperious and even faintly ridiculous character of the dictator familiar to us from history, his presence continues to haunt Ida.
Stylishly edited, with original newsreel footage from the archive of the fascist film board – the Istituto Luce – interspersed throughout the film, Vincere offers a fascinating portrait of life in wartime and fascist Italy. Though the second half of the film is very well acted, the first half was particularly strong. While Mussolini’s early career as a socialist and newspaper editor is well known, it’s an unusual choice of subject for a film – cinematic portrayals of fascism tend to concentrate on the later years, when the regime was firmly established, or on the Second World War and antifascist resistance. Apart from an unnecessary cinematic trick in the opening sequences that seemed to give Mussolini ‘demonic’ eyes, veteran director Bellocchio tackles his subject extremely well.
An atheist Mussolini, clearly not lacking in self assurance or disdain for the establishment, opens the film by challenging God (in his words) in front of an audience of church-goers. If God has not struck him down within five minutes, it is evidence that he does not exist. This scene, which ends with Mussolini and Ida fleeing a packed room of outraged Catholics after the five minutes are up, sets the tone for the first half of the film. A montage of original archive footage, blending film and photography, of Milan’s signature images, from factories and futurists to department stores and the omnipresent duomo, captures further the energy of the city; modern and industrial, packed with revolutionaries and literary bohemians and simmering with unrest. In this atmosphere, the call for revolution was as much as attitude as a political stance; a cry of youth and vigour against age and conformity. It was only later that fascism began to distinguish itself as something different and much more threatening. Scenes like the cinema-goers watching a newsreel announcing the declaration of war in 1914, which prompted an outbreak of noisy chanting by the warmongers in the audience – with the elderly pianist switching to keep time with the audience instead of the film – seem particularly indicative of the boisterous energy that permeated the city.
With the benefit of hindsight, cinema goers will find Ida’s enraptured face at scenes like this troubling or puzzling to say the least, since we know this seemingly revolutionary energy was only going to lead to dictatorship in Italy and personal tragedy for her. However the film does bring this pivotal historical moment to life, recreating the noisy backdrop of wartime Milan and giving us some insight into the motivations of revolutionaries of both Left and Right in the lead up to fascism.
Niamh Cullen is an IRCHSS postdoctoral fellow in the School of History and Archives, University College Dublin, specialising in modern Italian history.