Little known outside his native country, Marco Bellocchio has been a mainstay of Italian cinema for the past 50 years, albeit a most singular and elusive one. With his new film “Dormant Beauty” opening in New York this week ahead of a wider expansion, and in the wake of a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, it’s time that more audiences took note.
Bellocchio’s filmography has been closely intertwined with the complexities of the past 50 years of Italian history. From teenage angst to youth rebellion, from religious institutions to political subversion, his films have delved deeply into the social, political and, most prominently, intimate contradictions of an almost schizophrenic nation during very turbulent times.
But Bellocchio, notwithstanding his variations on style and political orientation, has seldom tried to find solutions to his films and always insisted on their fertile discrepancies. It is not by chance that the tumultuous history of Italy in his films is often seen through the eyes of conflicted and mentally wavering characters, ambiguous like the plot twists dotting its political history.
Death, ever-present in Bellocchio’s cinema, and the preciousness of life (a more recent addition to his palette) are at the forefront of “Dormant Beauty.” The film is inspired by the true story of Eluana Englaro (the Italian equivalent of Terri Schiavo), who laid in a vegetative coma for 17 years and whose death caused in Italy a prolonged controversy regarding to the right live and the right to die.
Through different stories suspended between life and death, Bellocchio suggests that yes, even death is a right, but life is also worth fighting for. That’s quite a statement from someone whose filmography started off with the killing of his mother—onscreen, that is. While Bellocchio’s latest film features many of his trademark preoccupations, those interested in his work should look at his prior accomplishments before considering his latest one.
Bellocchio’s debut feature, 1965’s “Fists in the Pockets,” played like the inception of an Italian new wave that never came to pass. It constituted an anomaly of sorts within the cinematic landscape of the time — still burdened by the long shadow of neorealism and perturbed only by individual genius (Antonioni, Fellini, the great Marco Ferreri and other lesser known talents). The movie centers on Ale (Lou Castel), a loose cannon, the spawn of a bourgeois family whose status haunts him. A restless and feverish character, Ale/Sandrino/Alessandro/Sandro (his name keeps changing) is tormented by his existential inadequacy and more than a little teen angst. When he proceeds to physically eliminate some members of his family, including his mother, his neuroses will not leave him. Often credited with having anticipated the youth rebellion that a few years later would shake the foundations of Italian society, Bellocchio’s first feature hints at the darker side of that rebellion — namely, the tendency to internalize social malaises rather than successfully fighting them. While “Fists in the Pockets” explores shapeless rage, Bellocchio’s second film, 1967’s “China Is Near,” displays a detached, amused attitude towards its subject and characters.
The movie offers a farcical look at the rising influence of Maoism on the Italian province as the ideological monopoly of the local Communist Party was being challenged by a wave of extra-parliamentary leftism. Here, Bellocchio decides to focus on the hilarious and grotesque aspects of a profoundly catholic and provincial country being swept by the jumbled prospects of a brighter, more exotic future. The tragicomic exasperation of his first film is replaced here by comedy, while the psycho-political delirium is framed in more rational terms. Belocchio’s interest in the increasingly heated political climate becomes even clearer in the 1969 short “Let’s Discuss,” another jocular look at a very familiar sight in Italian universities at the time. A group of radical students storm a class and confront the professor (played by Bellocchio himself) on his obsolete role, arguing that the education system needs to be overthrown so knowledge can be made available to anyone.
Once again, the director oscillates between ironic aloofness and sympathetic understanding. In 1971, the Italian director returned to some of the themes of his debut with “In the Name of the Father,” a film set in a sinister, repressive catholic boarding school. An effective statement on class and religious stratification, the film has at its center a demonic angel who refuses to comply with the hierarchical rituals of the school. As the utopian fervor of 1968 invaded every aspect of Italian life and society, Bellocchio pointed his camera at the frictions between the establishment and an increasingly subversive movement. Released in 1972, “Slap the Monster on Page One” remains his most direct effort to side with the extra-parliamentary left, which was at the time the target of what came to be known as the “strategy of tension.” This was a series of often violent crimes and massacres carried out by right-wing extremists and the Italian secret services that would then be blamed on the revolutionary left in order to discredit its activities and curb its escalating momentum. ”Slap the Monster on Page One” tells of one of such instance. Relying on the magnetic performance of Gian Maria Volonté in the role of a newspaper editor, the film explores the confrontational spirit of the time by adopting the stylistic precepts of a then-very popular genre, the polizziottesco (Italian cop movies). Curiously, the film, which unambiguously sides with young revolutionaries, was dismissed by their real-life counterparts as a stereotypical depiction.
Homecomings and Shortcomings
Throughout the 70s Bellocchio’s cinema explored the political frenzy of the time and its implications — sometimes from the perspective of more intimate stories, and elsewhere by focusing on the role of cinema within that scenario. As the militant resolve peaked in the late 70s with violent demonstrations leading to armed insurrection that was subsequently crushed by the state, from the early 80s onwards, Italian society changed its course — and so did the cinema of Marco Bellocchio. With political passion ebbing away, Bellocchio found himself coming to grips with the heritage and consequences of a “failed revolution.” The director returned to his provincial hometown, the setting of his early films, with violent generational clashes making way to a more conciliatory, even nostalgic tone. In 1980, “Vacation in Val Trebbia” provided a “professional” home movie consisting of a fictional part and a more documentary-like one where Bellocchio stages his marital problems, ponders on his “traumatic” departure from his hometown where his family villa (where “Fists in the Pockets” was shot) is being sold.
The shapeless form of the film seems to suggest that times are not ripe yet to come to terms with his personal past and its traumas. The labyrinthine, oppressive indoor spaces of his early films return in “A Leap in the Dark” (1980), where everything is under the paranoid control of judge Mario Ponticelli, played by Michel Piccoli. His sister (Anouk Aimée) has lived with him all her life but when she gets mentally ill, he doesn’t seem to know what to do. The camera follows them in the subconscious of their apartment, psychoanalyzing the characters reflected in mirrors and hiding in shadows until one of them will try to back out of its tailing insistence. For the first time, the director seems to find a harmonious balance between rational and irrational forces, between objectivity and subjectivity in a film that feels more “resolved” than others.
As if relying on this newly found balance, Bellocchio will try to untie the knots still tying him to his past in “The Eyes, The Mouth” (1982). Lou Castel, the protagonist of “Fists in the Pockets,” goes back to his maternal house for the funeral of his twin brother who committed suicide (Bellocchio’s twin brother took his own life too at the age of 29). Initially reluctant to reenter the provincial routine with its class and family relations, he will end up having an affair with his dead brother’s wife.
From the eighties onwards, Bellocchio’s cinema focuses on coming to terms with a personally and politically turbulent past, and the detested provincial life is revisited under a more favorable light. “Good Morning Night” (2003) epitomizes Bellocchio’s refashioned view on the politically charged generational clashes that had shaken Italian society in the seventies. Here the director revisits one of the defining episodes of recent Italian history and a watershed in the history of the extra-parliamentary left: the political assassination of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro at the hands of the Marxist-Leninist organization Red Brigades. Immaculately staging the claustrophobic detention of the Christian Democrat leader in the “people’s prison,” Bellocchio imagines a different ending to the real one: the female member of the Red Brigades commando that had kidnapped, held prisoner and executed Aldo Moro, frees him in a dream sequence after acknowledging his paternal authority.
Pointing once again to the psychoanalytical metaphor of the father’s killing (in “Fists in the Pockets,” it was the mother who had been killed), Bellocchio seems to close one of the main thematic circles of his cinema, addressing the violence and the generational clashes at the center of his work. Many of Bellocchio’s peers share his sentiments—both within the country’s cinema and beyond it.