The latest film from veteran Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio is a collage of expressionistic flashes and newsreel footage pasted within the borders of a plodding historical drama.
Called Vincere, it begins by telling the story of a young Benito Mussolini's rise to power but quickly shifts focus to Ida Dalser, the rejected lover (and possibly first wife) of Il Duce. Dalser first spots the object of her affection at some kind of caucus for public office, where a young Mussolini declares that there is no God. Borrowing a pocket watch from a spectator, he declares that he will wait five minutes, and if he is not struck dead it will serve as proof of a godless universe. How could a girl resist? And indeed, Ida watches him through a cracked door in the back of the room.
Unfortunately, Bellocchio pulls a major punch in this scene by not letting the full five minutes elapse on screen. Cross-cutting Ida's adoring gaze with Benito's power grab for the full five minutes could have been a gonzo move that would have plunged the film into a tense relationship with any engaged viewer. It's hard not to admire Mussolini in that moment, but what kind of impressions would we form if we actually sat through the full five minutes? Would his political performance seem bolder as time wore on, or just sophomoric? Would we identify with Ida more or less if we lived through her first awkward sparks of yearning? At a bloated two-plus hours, Vincere wouldn't have suffered from five more minutes that serve emotion rather than story.
While we don't get to participate fully in the complete duration of this encounter, soon enough we are treated to a lengthy sex scene: Benito hovers over Ida, staring straight ahead like a bull about to charge. She is engaged fully, but he is undoubtedly thinking of a different kind of conquest. Indeed, his post-coital reveries consist of standing on Ida's balcony imagining the masses—provided by Bellocchio via famous newsreel footage—that will soon be his followers. The film is at its best in moments like this, linking Ida and Benito's sexual relationship with his followers' crazed adoration of their dictator. In a telling move that underlines the metaphor, Mussolini's initial courtship of Dalser is a silent one: They sleep together before we see him utter a complete sentence to her. She gives herself to the icon, the man who dares affront the almighty, not the person.
Bellocchio is not aiming for realism, and his story is served by narrative gambles that draw Dalser's story along the lines of her obsession rather than detailed explanation of her motivation. Visually exciting when he wants to be—a class of black-clad blind students creep across the frame; Dalser tumbles out of a tree down into a hammock; mental patients scramble up the bars of an asylum—Bellocchio seems unsure whether to remain faithful to Dalser's tragic story or bend it into a delirious metaphor for the relationship of masochism to devotion. The periodic flashes of brilliance energize the film's droopy devotion to exposition, and Vincere would be more exciting—if slightly less decipherable—if it consisted entirely of these moments mashed up alongside each other with less obligatory cartilage connecting them (think an abbreviated, energetic version of The Conformist or The Night Porter). Elliptical and spotty, Vincere is a dreamy snooze that feels more like a vague dream than a bold vision.