If you thought Mussolini’s record as a statesman was patchy, wait until you see how he treated his lovers. Italian veteran Marco Bellocchio delivers an operatic slice of historical muckraking which exhumes the tale of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), spurned wife of the lantern-jawed lothario who would become Il Duce (Filippo Timi). Smitten by the rhetoric of the young socialist firebrand, Ida’s courtship with Benito takes place in the shadows until he is drawn into national politics and she is left destitute but certain she can win him back. Much like Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Il Divo’, the dizzying technical flair employed to tell Dalser’s story (back projection, animated intertitles, a bombastic score) is as much a clue to what’s going on with these characters as the fragmentary details of the story. Timi channels Klaus Kinski in his virtuoso reading of Mussolini, projecting with the full force of his muscular frame. In contrast, Mezzogiorno superbly expresses Dalser’s decline from sultry assurance to anguished obsession.
It’s a film rife with ambiguities and ellipses that will intrigue or infuriate depending on taste. The motivation behind Mussolini’s rejection of his wife is vague, while Dalser’s commitment to winning recognition from her husband confirms rather than refutes her insanity, making it tough to sympathise with her. Yet, it’s clear that Bellocchio wants Dalser’s martyrdom to be read as a wider statement on the fate of Italy under Fascism, making the film an astute study of amour fou and a cautionary tale about how the worship of false idols can lead to personal and national collapse.