In this film's opening scene an old Catholic apologist has just finished addressing a crowded room of black-clad gentlemen and the odd lady or two. When he introduces his opponent in debate, a "socialist" by the name of Benito Mussolini, we are surprised to behold a lean young man (this is the eve of the First World War) with a full head of hair and a moustache. Perhaps this physical appearance is even more shocking to us, who know Mussolini as very bald, very shaven, and very stocky, than his revelation as an adherent to the radical left. But as the future Italian dictator states later in a somewhat different context, "only a mule does not change paths." Since communism and fascism are akin, respectively, to driving on the left and driving on the right – the same narrow road, the same elite driving club, and the same pedestrians run over without a shred of remorse – our Mussolini (Filippo Timi) simply begins as one type of mule and ends up like another.
And how does Mussolini respond to what presumably was the usual ponderous logic of Catholicism? With accriminations of hypocrisy and greed? No, strangely, with a dimwitted parlor trick: "I challenge God. If he does not strike me down in five minutes, it means he does not exist." How this argument could fool a kindergartner is beyond me; yet it fools the young lady smiling smugly in the back of the room (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). Petite, with gigantic pores in her skin and even more gigantic regret in her eyes, our woman chuckles under her breath at the comments. Yes, she has always hated God. She hates God for dealing her such a lonely hand, for making her needy and pathetic in a country filled with the ruins of ancient structures and women's hearts. And she hates society for not noticing her, although admittedly we will come to understand there is not much to notice (following society's lead, Mussolini acknowledges her merely as a speed bump as he plows through the hecklers). In a more avant-garde film the director might indeed have waited the entire five minutes of screen time, perhaps out of no small sympathy with young Mussolini's socialist cause. But we race through it and we will spend our time racing through everything – to victory, one supposes, from the title's boastings. And so it should not surprise us in the least that God has not risen to the challenge of this clownish braggart in unrequited love with his own destiny ("With the guts of the last Pope," he declares, "we will strangle the last King"), because God has never witnessed anything like Benito Mussolini.
The woman's name is Ida Dalser and that is all we really know about her. Inevitably she will be one of very many, and yet she will continue to delude herself – indeed, Vincere can be understood as the running diary of her delusion – that she is the only woman whom Benito Mussolini has truly loved. We might tend to feel sorry for someone in her predicament, but then it becomes clear that her lot in life will comprise the sum of her disastrous decisions. For that reason Ida smiles and yet we do not like her; there is something serpentine about her gaze, her crater-like pores suggesting a sponge for Mussolini's drivel. Not long after her attendance at the 'debate' with Mussolini the renegade, she encounters Mussolini the lamster, and somehow he recognizes her and allows her to huddle with him in the shadows. He does what seems natural in such tense situations: he kisses and embraces her, although we are keenly aware that his main motive might only have been to hide his face from the passing law enforcement officials. When he leaves wordlessly (he has still not spoken to her) she realizes that her hand is covered in blood. At their third and most fateful meeting, she espies him spearheading a protest march and does what any by-the-book stalker would do: she runs amidst the crowd as it is being manhandled by policemen and neatly slides a note into his lapel pocket. He tracks her down – for all their directionlessness, men tend to focus when easy sex is in the offing – and they make love (her interpretation) or conquer each other's circuitry (his). Her first words to our ears, uttered during this encounter, are "my love," but his face reflects distance and almost possession, his eyes rolling away from the woman who so desperately wants to become his wife. When he laments his lack of financing to start a radical newspaper, she sells everything she owns to help him. He feigns pride with an attempted refusal and then adds that he will "consider this a loan," although we understand that he is a distinguished graduate of the one-way loan school. Within a year she will bear him Benito Jr., and soon thereafter will her cruel fate be revealed to no one except herself, as we have long since anticipated the series of obstacles and roadblocks that allow the most famous man in Italy to separate his existence from that of a nugatory admirer. An admirer, we should add, who needs to be silenced.
Vincere is uncommonly good, perhaps because it includes little of the common and even less of the good. History seems like a running joke that, if told often enough, stops sounding funny, and the lone event of any gravity is the relationship between Mussolini and Ida – and that seems to be solely Ida's opinion. If these pages were at all interested in labels we could call the work a highly stylized and thus ironic Mussolini propaganda film filtered through the mind of the cause's most dedicated revolutionary. It is typical among the juntas, overthrows, and putsches of the world that the most committed partisans do not occupy the highest links in the chain of command. These duties are reserved for natural despots, and who was more natural a demagogue and populist than the founder of Il Popolo d'Italia? Indeed, in the second half of the film Mussolini is only shown on news reels (still prevalent in movie theaters at the time because Mussolini was nothing if a thespian), and he disappears from our view as he has from Ida's. Mussolini has likewise few peers in betraying and ignoring former friends and lovers, and even reins in his usually insatiable urges when at a Futurist Expo Ida shows up, so to speak, ready for action. He will be resurrected in the form of his grown son (also played by Timi), who with some genetic advantage impeccably imitates his father's cadence and mannerisms, although both of them have much of the demeanor of a professional wrestler. When Ida is given medical advice, it comes in two flavors: the first is the admission by one of her doctors that he knows she is sane and so she should simply attempt to be an exemplary fascist wife, for her good and that of her son; the second is the panel physician's advice – the kind she doesn't want to hear – declared with the camera solely on her so that we may gaze upon her slowly crumbling face. And why is she suddenly subject to so much medical attention? I'm afraid less discreet reviews than this one will give the whole matter away, so we will just add that the scenes of medical attention are among the film's most effective because they are the most ironic. Ida simply doesn't comprehend that Mule-so-lini hasn't really changed his path at all. And don't believe that those five minutes pass as quickly as poor Ida might think.