As Ida Dalser, the wife Mussolini spurned, Giovanna Mezzogiorno is remarkable in Marco Bellocchio's Vincere, which tells a sad story of an extraordinary injustice. She is adoring and devoted, then despairing, then calmly furious. The performance anchors a gripping film that starts with the stuff of epics - war, politics, the sweep of history - then zooms in on this wronged, defiant woman.
Vincere begins in the opening years of the 20th century, as Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) is struggling for power. A newspaperman, he agitates for war; an atheist, he makes a political point by defying God to strike him down, in the film's grandly entertaining opening scene.
He's also a lover. Early scenes of Benito and Ida's passion play out amid chaos and violence - after one embrace, her hand is coated in his blood. But Benito also has a mistress, and a child with her, and after he is wounded in World War I he pulls away from Ida and their young son. He ignores her letters, and eventually she is committed to a mental institution, where she can't make trouble for the ambitious leader. Timi drops out in later scenes, and instead of him we see newsreel footage of the real Mussolini.
There's a fairly abrupt shift in tone as the film proceeds. The earlier, political scenes are jazzed up with animations and screaming titles, but these have dropped away by the end. I find the transition a little awkward, and moments in the mental institution verge on camp. But these are just quibbles with an otherwise rewarding film.