I cannot help but think of Vincere as a quintessentially Italian film, not simply because it is about Italian history, but because of the manner in which it treats its subject. At heart the story of a woman loved and then spurned by a man on the political fast-track, the film is treated by director Marco Bellocchio in the most over-the-top, melodramatic way that it possibly could be, freely associating his story with the tawdry operas that are one of the country's most significant cultural exports (though the opera featured most prominently on the film's soundtrack is actually American: Philip Glass's Akhnaten). The result is a movie that drips with huge stylistic flourishes that attack the audience as though with a cudgel, and certainly I can imagine any given viewer finding this treatment of the material too big for its own good; too on-the-nose; blaring and noisome when it ought to be more subtle, human-sized, delicate. That's a perfectly respectable response to one of the most brash movies I've seen all year, but I like the movie anyway; its furious thundering seems to me a good match for the story. It is about Benito Mussolini, after all.

The film opens in 1914... no, that's not right, it opens in a rushed back-and-forth between 1914 and 1909, showing us both the first and last moments of a love story cramped up next to one another in a way that makes it seem almost like it's all happening at the same time, so much so that I'm not really at all certain that I have the exact movement of the plot clear in my head. This is the sort of thing that I'm referring to when I say that this is a stylistically brash movie, and so far I haven't even gotten to the aesthetic; this is just the narrative of the first five minutes. Anyway, a young Italian Socialist named Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) impresses a young woman named Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) with his entirely too sassy proof that God does not exist in front of a room full of theological scholars. So begins a love affair that continues along to marriage and pregnancy before the natural growing-apart that afflicts any couple runs into the Great War, and Mussolini's service in Italy's army. This is the last we'll see that man in this movie, as played by an actor; for the rest of the time, Benito Mussolini will only be played by Benito Mussolini, thanks to the generous application of stock footage; one of the film's best used repeated tricks is to show a character witnessing a specific event, and then cutting to newsreel footage of the same event; just one of the many ways that history, narrative and cinema are all mixed up in a big pot and splashed about with reckless energy all over the screen.

After the war, Mussolini is on the fast-track to becoming Il Duce, with a brand new wife in tow, and quicker than you can say "burgeoning Fascist state", Dalser and her son are separated and locked away, never to embarrass Mussolini again. This is not the story of how a woman scorned takes her revenge on the man who wronged her, and rises triumphantly above the problems caused by her imprisonment; Ida Dalser died in 1937 in a government hospital. What it is instead of that is the story of how even Fascism can't stamp out the human spirit, and how even though Dalser and her son, Benito Albino Mussolini (played as an adult by Timi, who does an unusually good job of differentiating between his two characters) are separated for the rest of their short lives, there is always love between them, that not even a dictator can order away. At the same time, the film is a striking demonstration of just what kind of evils Italian Fascism was capable of, and scathing indictment of Mussolini himself, who comes across as doubly evil here; not only did he send his country screaming into destruction during World War II, he was just as wretched in his personal life. Though if you need, in 2009, a compelling argument to demonstrate that Mussolini and the Fascists were bad news, I suspect that you need more help than just one movie.

Vincere - the title is the Italian for "to win", used in a manner roughly equal to shouting "Victory!" in a speech - is already remarkable for dramatasing a hugely interesting tale that was otherwise lost to history, and doing it in a very emotionally satisfying way: there have been more wronged women in the movies that I can think to count, but very few of them maintain the same sense of self-determination and indignation that Ida Dalser boasts, even at the highest ebb of her suffering. All the credit in the world goes to Mezzogiorno for playing this woman with a surplus of strength and intelligence, making her far more of a rounded human being than most women in similar narratives can lay claim to.

But what really sends the film to the top of the heap is the hypnotic, visionary way that Bellocchio treats the story. "Reckless energy" is the phrase I used before; that only scratches the surface. Vincere has almost too much creativity, enough so that it ends up being fatiguing as much as thrilling. But oh God! before that point! From the incredible force of particular images, such as the shot of a woman desperately scaling an iron fence at night during a snowfall - a few seconds that justify the purchase price of a ticket all by themselves - to the fascinating use of other movies throughout - the cameo appearance of Chaplin's The Kid is particularly well-played - to the crazy use of on-screen titles as a sort of visual chorus, commenting on the action in a manner reminiscent of an old German silent film, all of it is endlessly fascinating, and completely unrestrained, and absolutely brilliant. To say nothing of the film's soundtrack, which erupts into opera music at certain points, in the most ham-fisted attempt to demonstrate "heightened drama" that I think I have experienced in a long time; but I loved it anyway. Maybe it's just because I love opera and melodrama. Anyway, as far as those two things go, Vincere is one of the best movie melodramas I've seen in a long time: completely unashamed to use every scrap of loopy dramatic feint hiding in the director's mind, it is a vast, important, hugely silly and deeply touching film that treats history as a cinematic playground; and both the cinema and the history are better off for it.