It's about one of the mistresses of Benito Mussolini, Ida Dalser, a woman who became obsessed with Mussolini before he rose to power, sold everything she had to help him open his newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia, and then was dumped by him when he became Il Duce.
Not only was she dumped, she was forcibly put in a mental hospital, so she could not tell everyone that she was married to him and had a legitimate son by him, also named Benito Mussolini. It is a horribly tragic story, since Mussolini's henchmen, no doubt under his orders, decided to first steal custody of the boy from his relatives, to give it to a fascist official and then when he was a young man, interned him in a mental hospital too. Both he and his mother died young and forgotten in insane asylums. Dalser never became political, yet she was singularly obsessed with airing her own personal truth. She was so infatuated not to make the connection that she was in the loony bin because of his direct orders. The poor son was reduced to watching his father intoning megalomaniac speeches in endless newsreels, hearing his voice on the radio, seeing his enormous, ugly marble head everywhere. But he could not say he was the son of Il Duce.
If this is not a harrowing example of "the personal is political" I don't know what is.
The movie is told in an idiosyncratic and operatic way, intercutting actual footage of the First World War and Mussolini, with a powerful operatic score that includes music by Philip Glass.
Dalser, as extraordinarily played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno, is one of those women who totally surrender their passion and their wits to cold bastards, like Mussolini (the excellent Filippo Timi, who also plays the son as he gets older). The older Mussolini is played by himself in newsreel footage (that any woman would want to be within striking distance of that horrible, brutish man is beyond me) He had many mistresses, as befits an Italian macho, and four children with his wife, but he was a cold, cruel bastard. The movie does not explain his slide from socialism to fascism. Probably Italians know the story by heart. But what it does show in spades is the acquiescence and complicity of the Catholic Church in the rise of fascism. At the beginning of the movie the young Mussolini is egging God to prove that He exists by striking him down, a sure sign of his dangerous narcissism, also in evidence when he considers himself to become grander than Napoleon. By the end he is great pals with the Vatican. You could not rise to power in Italy by alienating the Catholic Church, which then as today, the only thing it guarded was appearances and the only thing it cared about was power. This is the reason why Mussolini was so cruel to Dalser and his own son. Because of the hypocrisy required by the Church.
A great line in the movie, uttered by a psychiatrist who wants to help Dalser, says:
"The Church is the only mother Fascists still fear." Ain't that the truth. What is more fascist, or more evil than the Catholic Church? Don't get me started. The Catholic Church is responsible for most of the evils in human history. And they are still at it.
This film is also about that central holy construct of Italian culture, motherhood. The theme of the movie is the destruction of the mother. And of the woman. The metaphorical synthesis Bellocchio achieves is neat and powerful. Fascism was an intimate destruction of the most personal. Mussolini destroyed the mother of his own son and his own son. What could be more monstrously inhuman?
We all know of the evils perpetrated by the Italian fascists, but when seen up close, from the actual story of Mussolini, his lover and his child, the cruelty becomes tangible, and terrible.