When Marco Bellocchio emerged on the Italian cinema scene in the 1960s, he won near- universal acclaim. An intellectual wunderkind, he had abandoned the academic study of philosophy for film school in Italy and England. At age 25 he returned to Bobbio, near his hometown of Piacenza in the Northwest mountains of Italy, and, with money borrowed from his family, he made his first film.

Shot in black and white with a score by the great Ennio Morricone, Fists in his Pocket (1965) raged against bourgeois conventions. With the same radical convictions that produced Europe’s 1968 cultural revolution, Bellocchio believed that the transformation of the bourgeoisie must take place on two levels: public and private. Those two spheres intersected in the family, and Bellocchio’s Fists was an assault on a grotesque Italian clan. Burdened by epilepsy, blindness, and mutual hatred, its family ties were poisonous bonds.

Some saw in the film a portrayal of the hangover from Italian fascism; others saw a portent of the generational confrontations to come. But cineastes agreed that whatever it meant, Bellocchio was an Italian original. Critics compared the surreal elements of the film to Buñuel. And, after Bellocchio’s second film, Close to China (1967), Pauline Kael declared his filmmaking “so distinctive that it already resembles genius” (emphasis added). Contrasting him with Godard, she saw in the Italian quality of his work, “an outgrowth of the hybrid art of Opera.”

With Vincere, Bellocchio—now over 70—has fulfilled his youthful promise. The film offers a picture of Mussolini’s rise, invaluable particularly for Americans who think of Mussolini as Hitler’s stooge. Bellocchio’s portrait, brought to life by the extraordinary performance of Filippo Timi, allows us to reassess the man who spoke fluent German, read Nietzsche, believed God was dead, called on Italians to strangle the last king (Victor Emmanuel) with the guts of the last pope, and made himself into the fascist übermensch, Il Duce.

Yet the film is less about Mussolini and fascism than about Italy’s rediscovery of Ida Dalser, a woman whose love for Mussolini was a kind of madness. Like the heroines of great opera, Ida is a metaphor for something larger: in this case, the passion of the Italian people who surrendered themselves to Il Duce, believing they would be lifted up and exalted in his arms, only to be ruined by him. Vincere is a grand production filled with the public passion of politics and the private drama of erotic surrender.

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Vincere explores the preoccupations and conflicts that have characterized Bellocchio’s path to artistic triumph. He has attacked every kind of patriarchal authority in his films—political, military, religious, and academic—and every kind of sexual repression as well. Typical is the opening of In the Name of the Father (1972): an older and a younger man come toward us from the shadows. The older one suddenly begins to shout “Respect me! Respect me!” as he beats the younger, who more than returns his blows. It is a father and son, an unforgettable portrayal of the impasse of the Oedipal struggle. Bellocchio’s cinema does not spare women either; most of them are mad or masochistic or both.

With In the Name of the Father, Bellocchio began a prolonged excursion into psychoanalysis. He embraced the extreme perspectives of Austrian-American psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Reich and his followers believed not that they would understand and come to terms with their Oedipal complex, but that they would be truly liberated only when they have annihilated those psychic chains. The same for sexual repression: the forces of repression must be destroyed. As Bellocchio’s concerns turned increasingly from public space to the private space of the mind, his films lost their narrative clarity and became oneiric, offering a series of arresting images connected by his own free associations. It was like watching someone else’s nightmares. These films drove away his overseas audiences, and the Italian wunderkind was forgotten in America.

In his personal life, Bellocchio seems to have been searching for a way out of the limitations of his own consciousness. While many of his contemporaries joined communes and experimented with LSD, Bellocchio tried to merge creatively with others by making collaborative films. He came under the spell of the psychoanalytic guru Massimo Fagioli and joined his cult of group analysis, in which scores of people would take part in a single session analyzing a dream together.

The director partnered with Fagioli on four films, most notoriously Devil in the Flesh (1986). Bellocchio had always been interested in sex and power, the psychoanalytic building blocks of all human relationships. But he was also fascinated by madness and, with Fagioli, explored these subjects in an almost clinical style.

Devil in the Flesh was a “success de scandale,” the first art film with a depiction of fellatio. The film is not, however, erotic. Indeed it seems awkward and amateurish, a flawed attempt to explore the mystery of female sexuality. The protagonist, Giulia (the Dutch actress Maruschka Detmers), is having an affair with her psychoanalyst’s son, a high school senior. Giulia has a spectacular body, but she seems more feral than erotic; sex is her symptom, not her pleasure. In one prolonged sex scene, the pair are vigorously engaged but strangely stiff and unyielding. It resembles exercise more than sexual pleasure.

Only Bellocchio himself offers enlightenment. In DVD commentary, he explains that the actors had to try the scene over and over because what they were after was the philosophical distinction, the representation of sex rather than the thing itself. Bellocchio has said the scene was not meant to be erotic and certainly not meant to arouse the audience.

Watching it in 2010 with Bellocchio’s explanations, one sees a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but these scenes do not help us to understand either Giulia or her young lover. The sex occurs out of any human context and leaves us with the sense that Giulia is acting out Bellocchio and Fagioli’s imaginings of her masochistic sexual impulses rather than revealing her own sexuality. Despite its commercial success, the film was hardly a high point for Bellocchio, either as auteur or philosopher.

Vincere maintains that preoccupation with sex, power, and madness. But as the film traces Ida’s trajectory from mad love to madness, we believe in her erotic passion and in Mussolini’s example of power as narcissistic entitlement. Whereas in Devil in the Flesh the actors seemed extensions of a bungled psychoanalytic theory, in Vincere, they inhabit genuine characters. Sex unmasks them.

Like Bellocchio’s other heroines, Ida (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) is a masochist. She falls in love with Mussolini’s aura of brazen power. When others are shocked by his “God is dead” pronouncement, she gives full agreement. And she agrees when he rejects peace, parts ways with the socialists, and embraces nationalism. She surrenders to him eagerly. She wants to experience complete love, and gives herself to Mussolini in search of intimacy, orgasm, and reciprocity. Mezzogiorno seems to have been born to play the part; there is a strength in her that transcends the madness and makes us care about Ida to the bitter end.

Her pleasure and fulfillment lie in her surrender—bodily and otherwise. She sells everything to support the publishing venture that launches Mussolini’s national career. She waits for him naked, on the bed in her empty apartment; her body and the cash an offering to him. He takes it all but never gives her the love she wants as her reward. We sense, even at the height of their affair, that, for Mussolini, Ida can only be a conquest, that he is incapable of love. Through sex, his own gratification fulfills his sense of power. Ida bears Mussolini a son, but he betrays her and rejects them both.

The heart of the film portrays Ida’s attempts to deal with that rejection. Timi disappears and Il Duce now looks out at us from newsreels woven into the film, conveying the reality of the emotional distance that Ida denies. First she is sent off to live with relatives, but she refuses to give Mussolini up. She writes letters to the pope, to the king, to the authorities insisting that her relationship to Mussolini is real. For this she is confined to a mental hospital and separated from her son.

Psychiatrists are taught that every delusion bears an element of truth. But Ida is told her truth is a delusion, and the cure is to admit her lie. One kind psychiatrist believes her, but counsels her to stop the struggle she can never win. He fails to understand that the reality of her relationship to Mussolini and her bearing his child have become her reason for being, her source of dignity. To give up is to give up her sole project in life, her identity. She will die in the mental hospital, as will her grown son, also played by Timi.

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Most filmgoers are reluctant to watch a film a second time. Vincere requires that commitment if one is to take full measure of its artistry. It is dense with cinematic aperçus, a collage of rapidly streaming visual poetry. Two examples. First, World War I is a crucial moment in Mussolini’s career. He became a soldier after he broke with his Socialist comrades, who wished that Italy remain neutral in the conflict. The historical details will all be in the film, but Bellocchio announces the war visually with the word “Sarajevo” in large letters against a building. Long black banners unfurl from four flag poles jutting out at the top of that building, harbingers of the death to come. Mind boggling when you first see it—awesome when you understand that it is a visual aria.

In the second example, Mussolini rejects Ida and calls her mad. The face of a strange disheveled woman shows on the screen. Other such faces make their appearances, but only later do we realize that these are Ida’s fellow inmates in the asylum that awaits her. Their import becomes clear on a second viewing. Here and elsewhere Bellocchio follows a psychic rhythm rather than the chronology of the historical narrative.

Yet even two viewings will not reveal everything in this film. Bellocchio is unlike those avant-garde filmmakers who weave a linear narrative into a solvable postmodern puzzle. His fractured narrative offers a beautiful period piece, evoking the mood of the times, the temper of the people, a history of emotional—not cognitive—memory. Toward the end of the movie, Ida, with the help of a nun, escapes from the hospital and returns to her family’s home. The townspeople who once shunned her rally around her when the authorities come to fetch her the next morning. Their conversion makes no sense; fascism would have been at the peak of its power and influence. Is it Ida’s fantasy—a dream of vindication? Are we in Ida’s mind, or in Italy?

Leaving some questions unanswered, Bellocchio triumphs with Vincere. It does more than “resemble genius.” It is the thing itself.