NYFF 2002 REVIEW: Tests of Faith, or Lack Thereof; Bellocchio's "My Mother's Smile"
by David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman
(indieWIRE: 10.10.02) — “My Mother’s Smile” was originally called “L’Ora di Religione,” or “The Religion Hour,” and the change of name for the English-subtitled version signals interesting things about the differences between the European art-film sensibility (or what’s left of it) and what’s perceived as salable on the international (read: American) market. Marco Bellocchio‘s movie is about a mother and a religion in approximately equal measure, so the switch is certainly defensible. But is it really true that a reference to religion may scare away more distributors than the thought of a grinning mom?
Be that as it may, it’s good to see Bellocchio in fine form once again, after the positive response received by “The Wet Nurse” in 1999. He made his reputation with the extremely hard-hitting ’60s dramas “Fists in the Pocket” and “China Is Near,” and while he’s mellowed a bit in recent years, his filmmaking gifts remain strong.
“My Mother’s Smile” spins a tale of family rivalry, centering on an unusual situation: A woman is being considered for Roman Catholic sainthood years after her death, and her son, an atheist, is discomfited by this. He’s an artist named Ernesto, reflective and earnest in his life and thoughts, but dogged enough in his nonreligious convictions to resist the temptations and blandishments of what he sincerely sees as a religious establishment that’s irrelevant to human welfare at best, motivated by self-serving creeds and power-grasping exploitation at worst.
Driven by deep personal instinct as well as these long-held attitudes, Ernesto is taken seriously aback when a cardinal informs him that his aunt has been lobbying the Vatican for several years on behalf of his mother’s canonization. His skepticism isn’t diminished by his knowledge of the facts being used to propel the campaign. The candidate for sainthood was killed by Ernesto’s mentally deranged brother some years earlier, and a man who subsequently prayed to her claims to have received a miraculous healing soon afterward.
Being a victim of matricide is no credential for canonization, in Ernesto’s view, and he’s hardly swayed by the cured Catholic’s dubious testimony. In fact, Ernesto never found his mother all that impressive — quite the opposite, she stuck him as ordinary, even obtuse in ways. The film’s central metaphor is a portrait of her being prepared by the Vatican, showing her with a saintly, beatific smile. This is not the mother Ernesto remembers, and he says so, much to the anger of the church and his family. The more he’s pressured to reconstruct his memories of her, the more cynical he becomes about the situation. Why is the church so receptive to considering this unimposing woman for a status even Mother Teresa isn’t sure of attaining? The answer lies in her extended family, each member of which has a personal stake in the social prestige and material gain that a win in this game will produce.
If this conflict were the film’s only concern, “My Mother’s Smile” might come across as a single-minded antichurch parable. But there’s a lot more going on, most of it seamlessly integrated with the spiritual struggle between Ernesto’s moral sense and his relatives’ selfish quest. Ernesto has a wife named Irene, from whom he’s separated, and a little boy named Leonardo, and Leonardo has started asking hard questions about the power of God and what the afterlife is like. It seems that the boy is under the influence of his religion teacher at school, and when Ernesto goes there to meet her, he tumbles to her influence as well — prompted less by theology than by her dazzling looks and savvy about art, including his own work. She induces subtle alterations in Ernesto’s dealings with the world around him, slowly bringing new vitality into his hermetic, almost monastic life. His relationship with her both reconfirms his resistance to institutionalized religion and leads him to reconsider aspects of his ingrained doubtfulness concerning spiritual life.
“My Mother’s Smile” is a bit too ambitious, adding one allegorical subplot too many when Ernesto locks horns with an aristocrat who’s so reactionary that they almost end up in a duel. The film is always striking in cinematic terms, though, characterized by a serious tone and somber camerawork that suggests the possibly harmful isolation of Ernesto’s cavernous studio. The ancient stone architecture of this building makes a compelling contrast to Ernesto’s own artwork; he supports himself by making computer-designed illustrations for children’s books, and the film lingers over his wizardry with hi-tech computer programs. This contrast vividly illustrates the movie’s themes of past vs. present, memory vs. nostalgia, genuine love vs. romantic yearning and idealism.
The film also raises issues about repression within the traditional Italian family and the currently pertinent problem of corruption within high Catholic echelons. Deftly blending themes related to religion, politics, personal psychology, and family dynamics, “My Mother’s Smile” is a memorable achievement under any title.