For my birthday last month, I was given some movie gift certificates, some of which I used this afternoon to see the new Marco Bellochio film Vincere. This dark film (its superb acting augmented by some well-chosen newsreel footage) traces Mussolini’s evolution - a young Socialist radical in Milan, who pompously mocks God’s existence and wouldn’t mind strangling the King with the intestines of the Pope, who then, when World War I comes, breaks with the Socialsts and embraces an ardent Italian nationalism and then after the War becomes the King’s Prime Minister and reconciles Italy with the Catholic Church. That already well known story is experienced through the virtually unknown, tragic story of Ida Dalser, a woman from Sopramonte near Trent (born when that area was still part of the Austrian Empire), who falls madly in love with Mussolini and for the rest of her life claimed to have married him in 1914. In 1915, however, the same year Ida bore Mussolini a son, Benito Albino, the future Duce married Rachele Guidi, recognized ever since as his legal wife. The story of Mussolini’s post-war rise to power is told through the story of his estrangement from Ida, whose embarrassing claims eventually cause her to be put under house arrest and finally committed to a mental institution. While both she and her son seem perfectly lucid in all other respects, both insanely persist in asserting their dangerous claims, consuming and destroying their lives in the process.
Ida can be seen as symbolic of a society, a nation, which fell irrationally in love with its power-driven Duce, whose amoral ambition in turn consumed and destroyed both Ida and Italy. The verb vincere means "to win" (in the sense of “to conquer”) and one of the last newsreel clips of Mussolini in the film ends with him saying (on the eve of war) vinceremo, “we will win.” (Since the story is experienced through Ida, once she has been abandoned by Mussolini, she – and we - only see him through newsreels).
Mussolini didn’t win, of course. Conceivably had his ambition not led him into a disastrous alliance with Germany and an even more unpopular and disastrous Second World War, Mussolini might have died peacefully in his bed, the King would still be on his throne, and Italy would have been spared what was in a sense defeat at the hands of both sides. For that to have happened, however, he would have had to restrain his own ambition for the good of Italy (becoming in effect a different person), or someone else would have had to step up and somehow stop him. In the film, Ida has some sympathetic allies, but they are all powerless, paralleling the apparent sense of powerlessness that seems to have overcome those that might have done more to check Mussolini’s ambitions. Unlike Hitler, who really did have something much more like complete control of German society, Mussolini never had comparably complete control and always had to share legitimacy with the transcendent and socially entrenched charismatic legitimacy of the Church and the admittedly much less charismatic, constitutionally legitimate King. The King did, of course, finally fire Mussolini in 1943, but that was then all too little and too late – both for the House of Savoy and for Italy. And, sadly, it was also too late for Ida and her son.