Mussolini’s tragic first wife on film

This video is Vincere – Trailer.

By Richard Phillips:

Vincere—the tragic life of Ida Dalser, Mussolini’s first wife

28 November 2009

Vincere, the latest feature by veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio, is about Ida Dalser, the first wife of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The audacious work is currently on the international film festival circuit, after premiering at Cannes in May this year. The movie has received some well-deserved praise and last month won the best direction, cinematography, editing, art direction and acting prizes at the Chicago film festival. Unlike most of Bellocchio’s more recent work, Vincere has secured several international distribution deals and eventually will be released in US and Australian cinemas.

Vincere, or “to win”,

the title of a fascist song

gives valuable insights into Dalser’s tragic life, the deep class polarisation of Italy in the lead-up to and throughout World War I, and some sense of the brutal, all-encompassing state repression during the first decade and a half of Mussolini’s fascist rule.

The movie opens in 1907 with the first encounter between Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Mussolini (Filippo Timo), at that point a Socialist Party member and journalist, and a militant atheist. One of Mussolini’s earliest pamphlets was entitled God does not exist and the movie’s shows him defiantly challenging a group of Christian scholars. Dalser, originally from Sopramonte in Trento, then under Austrian rule, runs a successful French-style beauty salon. She is impressed with the young firebrand and falls in love.

Mussolini as editor of the social democratic paper Avanti drives up its circulation, but with the outbreak of WWI the Socialist Party splits into two factions—those calling for Italian intervention in the bloody imperialist conflict, and those rejecting any involvement.

Mussolini becomes a ferocious proponent of Italian intervention, seeing the war as an opportunity for Italy to wrest control of Trento and Trieste from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Denounced as a traitor and expelled from the party, he establishes his own paper—Il Popolo d’Italia—to agitate for the war. Dalser sells most of her possessions to help finance Mussolini’s political activities and the couple are married and have a son. Mussolini, however, maintains a certain distance and refuses to completely commit himself to Dalser. He joins the army and is wounded in a training accident.

Dalser later discovers that he has married another woman—Rachele Guidi (Michela Cescon)—and there is an angry altercation between the two women at a church hospital where Mussolini is recuperating from his injuries. The future fascist dictator is beginning to be noticed by sections of Italy’s ruling elite, including King Vittorio Emanuele III, and has no intention of letting Dalser or anybody else stand in the way of his political ambition. Dalser publicly insists that she is Mussolini’s wife but is made persona non grata and then placed under virtual house arrest at her sister’s home. Government agents raid the house, destroying all evidence of her relationship with Mussolini and she is incarcerated in a mental asylum.

Dalser stubbornly refuses to be intimidated and writes to the Pope, the king, in fact, anyone in authority she hopes will listen and demands that she be officially acknowledged as Mussolini’s first wife. She vacillates between denouncing Mussolini as a traitor and deluding herself that he still loves her and is simply testing her loyalty. Dalser escapes the institution only to be recaptured and is packed off to San Clemente asylum in Venice where she is held until she dies in 1937.

Benitino, her son, is also hounded by government officials. The young boy is sent to boarding school, told that his mother is dead and later “adopted” by a local fascist police chief. Benitino insists that Mussolini is his father. Under constant surveillance for the rest of his life, he too is committed to an asylum where he dies in 1942, aged 27.

Vincere is a compelling work by Bellocchio, an interesting and significant director with a 45-year career in Italian cinema. Born in 1938, he studied at Italy’s prestigious Centro Sperimental di Cinematografia and then the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he wrote a thesis on Michelangelo Antonioni and Robert Bresson before directing his first feature—Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca) in 1965.

Fists in the Pocket is a dark and confronting story about a dysfunctional Italian middle class family and rightly regarded as one of the classics of post-WWII Italian cinema. It was denounced by sections of the Christian Democratic Party who wanted it banned, claiming it to be a slur against the Italian family. …

Vincere highlights Bellocchio’s artistic strengths, and some of his weaknesses. The movie is characterised by its visceral imagery and strong performances, particularly from Giovanna Mezzogiorno, and a palpable anger over the destruction of the lives of Dalser and her son. Mussolini’s regime often used psychiatric institutions to incarcerate and silence its opponents. …

Vincere provides a sense of the extreme class tensions during WWI with demonstrations and street-fighting between pro- and anti-war workers. One clash erupts in a cinema during newsreel screenings of Italian involvement in the war.

The asylum scenes are both tragic and beautiful, including an extraordinary moment when Dalser climbs up the bars of the asylum in the depth of winter and flings out her letters declaring that she is Mussolini’s wife and protesting her treatment. Another scene provides a damning exposure of the attitude of those sections of the Italian middle class who had accommodated themselves to Mussolini’s dictatorship. One psychiatrist tells Dalser to adapt herself to the existing political reality. This government will not last forever, he complacently declares, so you must become a great actress and pretend to be a “good fascist woman”. She rejects his cowardly advice.

Vincere, of course, is not flawless. Mussolini’s political evolution—from a militant anti-clerical socialist to a pro-war demagogue and a fascist dictator—is never fully explored. Bellocchio provides little sense of the political forces that shaped Il Duce and why. The movie heavily focuses on psychological factors—Mussolini’s ambition, ego, ruthlessness and other personal characteristics but his reaction to the revolutionary movement of the Italian working class following WWI is absent. This leaves the door open for all sorts of confused and wrong-headed interpretations.

One film writer praising Vincere, for example, has suggested that Dalser was an “instinctive anti-fascist” and that Italians, “like Dalser, all too eagerly succumbed to his [Mussolini’s] toxic allure”. This is false.

Mussolini took power not because ordinary Italians “eagerly succumbed to his toxic allure” but because the extraordinary post-WWI revolutionary movement of the Italian working class was blocked by the Socialist Party leadership. The young and inexperienced Italian Communist Party, founded in January 1921, proved incapable of mobilising workers against this betrayal and leading them in the struggle for a workers government and a socialist overturn.

Mussolini and his fascist Black Shirts, with financial and political support from the king, the military and Italian industrialists, stepped into the political vacuum and set to work murdering and intimidating the most class-conscious and militant workers. Britain was just one of the many imperialist powers that praised this bloody operation, with figures like Winston Churchill publicly hailing Mussolini as a hero and cheering from the sidelines. …

Notwithstanding Bellocchio’s tendency to shy away from these questions and to focus on personal psychological factors, his latest movie has integrity and is an important artistic contribution. Hopefully it will encourage other filmmakers to explore other aspects of this period in more detail. As the hysterical response to Vincere by extreme-right commentators and demagogues, such as the neo-fascist parliamentarian Alessandra Mussolini, Il Duce’s granddaughter, indicates, the unearthing of Italy’s real political history remains a crucial political and artistic question for the Italian filmmakers and the working class as a whole.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini this week in 1935 dispatched two divisions, numbering up to 35,000 soldiers, accompanied by heavy artillery and at least 50 planes to the border area between Ethiopia and Italian-Somalia. Three warships were also stationed off the Horn of Africa in preparation for a full scale invasion of one of the last two independent African states: here.

3 thoughts on “Mussolini’s tragic first wife on film

  1. Archives suing over iPhone Mussolini app

    Il Duce compilation a top seller on Apple’s online store

    03 February, 18:58

    (ANSA) – Rome, February 3 – Italy’s state-owned film company on Wednesday said it would file suit over a top-selling Apple iPhone application that plays film clips and speeches by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

    Cinecitta’ Luce, which manages the historic Italian studio’s film archive, alleged the material on the user-made mobile phone application had been copied off a DVD without permission for sale on Apple’s online store ”with flagrant disregard for international copyright laws”.

    iMussolini, a ”greatest hits” compilation of over a 100 audio and film clips starring il Duce, was taken off the iTunes store on Wednesday amid calls of outrage from Jewish groups and iPhone users.

    But a Cinecitta’ Luce spokesman said it was too little too late, and that the studio was going to court.

    ”That material is the exclusive property of Cinecitta’ Luce, whose media archives constitute its one and only source of revenue,” said Luciano Sovena.

    ”It also happens to represent this country’s memories, which here have been plucked out of context and put up for sale”.

    Selling for 1.50 euros, iMussolini was the Italian Apple store’s top-selling mobile phone application, totalling over 60,000 downloads by the time it was removed on Wednesday.

    The several hours worth of recorded speeches and video were compiled by a 25-year-old amateur software developer from Naples, Luigi Marino, who denied that they were pirated.

    ”All of those files are available for free on the internet,” said Marino.

    ”I didn’t do anything but put them together”.

    Marino added that he was ”surprised” by controversy surrounding the application, which he hadn’t meant to exalt the Italian strongman.

    ”I was really just trying to make a sort of documentary about a very delicate time in our history,” he explained.

    As anger welled over iMussolini last week, an unidentified Apple spokesman interviewed by Germany daily Deutschland Financial Times confessed disbelief that the application had been cleared for sale in the first place.

    But Marino said that he had no problem gaining approval for his application, which went on sale ten days after he submitted it in mid-January.

    The stir over iMussolini last week quickly spread to the United States where the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors decried it as ”an insult to the memory of the victims of Nazism and Fascism”.

    After removing the application on Wednesday, Apple had still not commented on it.


  2. Pingback: Fascist Italian criminal honoured by Berlusconi’s party | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. 100 years ago: Gunning down of protesters sparks mass upheavals in Italy

    Police confront demostrators in Ancona

    On June 7, 1914, police killed three demonstrators at an antiwar protest in the Adriatic port city of Ancona, in Italy. The police attack precipitated a semi-insurrectionary strike and protest movement of workers throughout Italy, dubbed “Red week.”

    Socialists, republicans and anarchists had called the rally in Ancona in opposition to the growth of European militarism, and the imprisonment of two young soldiers for their antiwar convictions. Italy was heavily involved in the deepening geopolitical tensions, having seized control of modern-day Libya from the ailing Ottoman Empire in 1911-12. In March, the liberal cabinet of Giovanni Giolitti had fallen, and been replaced by a government led by Antonio Salandra, a conservative and enthusiastic militarist.

    The Italian Socialist Party (PSI), and the major trade unions called a general strike on June 8 in response to the police shootings. In the following days, clashes pitting police and soldiers against striking workers and peasants erupted throughout Italy.

    Mass demonstrations were held in cities around the country. In the province of Romagna, churches and official buildings were attacked by strikers and set on fire, while telegraph poles were felled in an attempt to cut the military’s lines of communication. The cities of Ancona and Ravenna were effectively taken over by workers and peasants.

    In Rome, troops charged strikers who had erected barricades in the street, and shots were exchanged, killing three strikers and eight troopers. Workers were also fired upon by troops in Naples and Florence.

    Tens of thousands of troops were mobilized to regain control of towns and cities across the country. In response, the major unions, fearful of further revolutionary upheaval and with various connections to the state, called the strike movement off.

    Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian Marxist, later explained that the defeat of the movement was a product of an absence of political leadership. This was typified by the role of Benito Mussolini, at the time one of the main leaders of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). While occasionally given to ultra-radical rhetoric, Mussolini and the other leaders of the PSI did not provide a revolutionary perspective for the working class.

    Their national-opportunism was most sharply expressed by the fact that with the outbreak of World War I, Mussolini would abandon his socialist pretensions, and become a nationalist demagogue in the service of Italy’s war effort, before going on to found the Italian fascist movement.


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