Momentous events require powerful storytelling, which helmer Marco Bellocchio delivers in 'Vincere.'

With: Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michela Cescon, Piergiorgio Bellocchio, Corrado Invernizzi, Paolo Pierobon, Bruno Cariello, Francesca Picozza, Simona Nobili, Vanessa Scalera, Giovanna Mori, Patrizia Bettini, Silvia Ferretti, Corinne Castelli, Fabrizio Costella.

Momentous events require suitably powerful storytelling, which vet helmer Marco Bellocchio delivers in “Vincere,” the little-known story of Benito Mussolini’s ill-fated first wife and son. Conceived as grand opera set inside delineated space, it’s a thrilling, at times brilliant piece of staging that never forgets the emotional pull of either the tragic personal tale or the ramifications of history. Structurally and tonally, the pic opens like “Gotterdammerung” and moves to the more ruminative “Siegfried,” which means auds might feel the last quarter loses steam, but the arthouse crowd will still flock, at home and abroad.

That’s partly due to an unquestionably great story, which only recently come to light. Opening shifts between Milan, 1914, and Trent, 1907, the years when Mussolini (Filippo Timi) was a Socialist union organizer loudly asserting God’s nonexistence. Following a fleeting meeting in Trent, the beautiful Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) rekindles her fascination with the bold rabble-rouser on the eve of World War I, when Mussolini switches sides and goes from pacifist to hawk.

Ida’s attraction to the demagogue is palpable — where she’s hungry for his larger-than-life personality, he’s positively voracious for power. During their forceful sex scenes, Mussolini keeps his eyes fixed forward, as if he’s pounding the future itself to break through his fears of mediocrity.

When Ida sells all her possessions to fund her lover’s new newspaper, the rise of Fascism is set into play. Bellocchio stages one of his most stunning scenes as Mussolini incites a riot in a cinema between pro- and antiwar partisans, accompanied visually by newsreels from the battlefield and by the piano accompanist’s bellicose scoring.

By 1915, Ida had a son, Benito Albino Mussolini, and a still-missing marriage certificate, but soon she learns her husband has married Rachele Guidi (Michela Cescon). From then on, Mussolini distances himself from Ida, and ensures she and her son are kept away. At first subjected to near house arrest at her sister’s home, Ida is then thrown into an insane asylum, where she furiously writes to Mussolini, the Pope and others demanding her marriage be recognized.

Bellocchio convincingly imagines Ida as a woman obsessed nearly to the point of lunacy, but she’s also completely aware of what she’s doing. Her madness becomes both foolhardy and tragic; without minimizing Mussolini’s pomposity or headlong grasp for power at all costs, Bellocchio refuses to demonize the root of Ida’s obsession.

In political terms, the script is keen to present Il Duce as a man strikingly devoid of a moral compass. Bellocchio makes Mussolini’s alliance with the Vatican particularly clear, and shows how his move from vocal atheist to papal supporter ensured both his jettisoning of Ida and his grip on the reins of government. Pic’s title, the imperative form of “Victory,” comes from Il Duce’s rousing speeches, geared to mobilize the public to war.

The direction he’ll be taking the country is presciently illustrated by a column of blind classmates, conceived as a choral interlude, which references the famed parable of the blind leading the blind as well as John Singer Sargent’s haunting war masterpiece “Gassed.” Rarely has actuality footage been used so superbly, not merely for period flavor but as integral to the storyline: Once Mussolini renounces Ida, he’s only seen as she sees him, through newsreels.

While the history is fascinating, it’s the film’s style that takes the breath away. Bellocchio sets up his scenes like acts from an opera, alternately theatrical, spectacular, intimate and resounding. Blasts of oratorio, insistent texts overlaid on images, even thunder and lightning become tools containing all the “unnatural” excesses of opera: The full import is conveyed as rightfully larger-than-life.

Both Mezzogiorno and Timi are perfectly cast. He’s got Il Duce’s grandstanding down pat, yet Timi’s Mussolini is also frighteningly human. Mezzogiorno, moving and pathetic, pairs him beautifully: Her Ida is cultivated (as opposed to Rachele’s coarse peasant accent) and intelligent, a woman battered by her brush with unfettered power.

Carlo Crivelli’s music is a tour-de-force — it’s been a long time since this kind of orchestration has been so well used. Sweeping and bold, it harks back to some of the grand compositions of Hollywood’s golden age, yet there isn’t a whiff of the old-fashioned in its power to thrill.

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Production: An 01 Distribution release (in Italy)/Ad Vitam release (in France) of an Offside, 01 Distribution presentation of a Rai Cinema, Offside (Italy)/Celluloid Dreams (France) production, in collaboration with Istituto Luce. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Mario Gianani. Executive producer, Olivia Sleiter. Co-producers, Hengameh Panahi, Christian Baute. Directed by Marco Bellocchio. Screenplay, Bellocchio, Daniela Ceselli, based on the book "The Secret Son of Il Duce: The Story of Albino Mussolini and His Mother Ida Dalser" by Alfredo Pieroni.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W), Daniele Cipri; editor, Francesca Calvelli; music, Carlo Crivelli; production designer, Marco Dentici; costume designer, Sergio Ballo; sound (Dolby Digital), Gaetano Carito; assistant director, Francesca Romana Polic Greco; casting, Stefania De Santis. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 18, 2009. Running time: 129 MIN.

Cast: With: Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michela Cescon, Piergiorgio Bellocchio, Corrado Invernizzi, Paolo Pierobon, Bruno Cariello, Francesca Picozza, Simona Nobili, Vanessa Scalera, Giovanna Mori, Patrizia Bettini, Silvia Ferretti, Corinne Castelli, Fabrizio Costella.

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