Largely positive, at times gushing reviews of Italian director Marco Bellocchio's most recent work, Vincere, a superbly executed and gripping film that tells the story of Ida Dalser, the alleged wife and historically confirmed obscured paramour of Benito Mussolini, have not been, by any means, lacking. It has been lauded for the powerful performances of Giovanna Mezzogiorno, as Ida, and Filippo Timi, as both Mussolini and Mussolini's son, Benito; for its effective and at times, admittedly, overwhelmingly moving use of archival footage; for its similarly exasperating score that marches the narrative directly into your acoustic memory; and for Bellocchio's sweepingly rich, meticulous aesthetic by which he both visually romances and trounces his viewers. As for the rapturous beauty of the film, one might say that Bellocchio is here deserving of his namesake, which in English means beautiful eye.
Agreed, that might read like excessive verbiage to say that Vincere is a pretty picture. But rest assured that this picture's various sensory pleasures are indeed boldly robust and pretty aplenty.
On the other hand, somewhat thinly fleshed out in so much generally unanimous praise has been one of the film's most intriguing and relatively transparent metaphors, that of Ida Dalser as symbolic embodiment of the interwar and incipiently at-war Italian populace. This is not to say that critics and reviewers have missed or dismissed this powerful interpretation, nor that Vincere cannot be enjoyed in the absence of such metaphorical regard. Recognition of it, however, does certainly grant viewers a much deeper understanding of the film's broader message, impact and potential import. As such, one might consider it similarly important, or at least narratologically interesting, to note that this metaphor is not without precedent. And it is here where more flesh can be added to the notion of embodiment.
In the history of Italian letters, quite generally, and Italian cinema, more specifically, there is a long tradition of imbuing often strong-willed female figures—by way of various topoi of narrative function, consequence and trickery—with certain characteristics that can be construed, at a remove, as a medium for the metatextual amplification of a singular persona into that of an entire political body. To be sure, this practice is easily traceable in the ever-venerable history of Italian visual arts as well. But to streamline this discussion and come back to Vincere, a limit or two should be set.
As for literature, then, and without delving into too many specifics, one can find such synecdochic tendencies in the verses of Dante, Petrarch and Tasso; in the theatrical works of Goldoni and Metastasio; and in the less temporally distant poetry and prose of Foscolo, Carducci, Pascoli and D'Annunzio. This is but a very short list of writers whose works might be relevant here, and one should note that for most of them, excepting only the latter few, there was not yet any Italian populace proper, at least not as it is understood today, for their female protagonists, real or imagined, to embody. All the same, variably Italianate political bodies—cities, principalities, regions—can be read, through representative females, as manipulable objects of embodiment. In Machiavelli's play La Mandragola (1518), for example, a hilariously salacious and ironic tale of crossed plots and libidinal deceit, the female protagonist, Lucrezia, is pulled in many different directions and violated on many different levels by a host of self-serving plotters and co-conspirators, all of whom—Lucrezia included—get what they want in the end. Read as a political allegory, one whose shrewdly apt vision of power-securing connivances and machinations is readily reflected in The Prince, Lucrezia comes to represent the adroitly manipulated—by the formidable politico-pecuniary powers-that-were—Florentine populace of the early 16th century, essentially the era of Medici rule. And the Medici, employing tactics one would eventually come to call Machiavellian, were hardly, one might say, slack actors in matters of well-wielded might.