Italian master filmmaker Marco Bellocchio leaves his plots between his frames, focusing the camera, instead, on moments controlled by finely-felt pathos. Watching his latest film, “Blood Of My Blood,” is an experience near-incomparable to anything else. That’s often said about films whose genre is hard to pin down, or those whose visuals navigate the story, but this is something else. While it’s true that Bellocchio’s film belongs to no genre, the only functional compass for it is not necessarily in its visuals, strangely, but in the nebulous juncture where dialogue and music meet tone. More than any other film I’ve seen in the recent past (Hou Hsiao-Hsien‘s “The Assassin” as the sole exception, perhaps) “Blood Of My Blood” owes its magnetism to a rhythm that’s as symphonic as a Vivaldi concerto.
The melancholic cloud over the picture owes its particles to two highly compelling story-arcs, connected by a monastery in the small town of Bobbio. The first half of the film is set during the Inquisition period, where soldier Don Federico (Pier Gorgio Bellocchio) comes to visit Father Cacciapuoti (Fausto Russo Alesi) in order to understand why his recently deceased twin brother, a devout Catholic, is getting an unholy burial. The priest tells him of Sister Benedetta (Lidiya Liberman), a nun believed to be doing Satan’s bidding, who was very close to his brother right before his death, may have influenced him to take his own life. Benedetta must go through a series of Catholic tests, each more cruel than the previous, until she confesses her sins, in turn absolving Federico’s brother from the sin of suicide. If she does not, Federico’s brother will be buried among thieves and his family will be disgraced. Things get complicated, however, when Federico and Benedetta strike a connection, and the soldier finds himself stuck between saving a woman he believes to be innocent or letting his family’s reputation suffer.
The second half of the film leaps centuries ahead to the present time, where we find ourselves at the same monastery. A state official, Federico Mai (Bellocchio, again), is tasked with helping a Russian billionaire (Ivan Franek) purchase the property as an investment for luxury hotels. The reclusive owner of the monastery is a Count (Roberto Herlitzka), who has been living there in hiding from the rest of the world, and “non-existing” for eight years. He also happens to be a vampire. With the wife he has left behind, along with the whole Bobbio community desperately searching for him, the Count must re-emerge from the shadows after all these years, in order to confront these contemporary adversaries.
The force of originality felt in the narrative is only matched by Bellocchio’s execution. You feel like you’ve grasped his trick at various stages in the film, but then an unpredictable sleight of hand hoodwinks you back into a trance. And Carlo Crivelli‘s score is a monumentally vital assistant in this sorcery. The supercharged scenes between Benedetta and Don Federico, the intimate and oddly-humorous exchanges between the Don and his hosts (two Catholic sisters played by Alba Rohrwacher and Federica Fracassi), and a few key moments in the second-half which would spoil the film if described; these, and more, wouldn’t lure the viewer in half as deep were it not for Crivelli’s score. Oddly enough, this same score has the effect of taking one out of the film at times, which is a slight detriment to the experience; it almost gets ahead of itself without Bellocchio noticing. But, while we’re on music, there is a certain cover of a certain song used at a few crucial emotional peaks, which ends up being one of the boldest, strangest, and most ingenious choices of music used in recent times. You’ll never hear it coming.
“Blood Of My Blood” is a plotless film, where the devil lies in the details (a key in the lake, a glance at a young waitress), whose themes of religious providence and modern-day apathy are tied with a sense of deep longing and timeless romance. What is it really all about? Like all great art films, an examination of the human condition is tucked away somewhere within its frames. All of the actors (many of whom appear in both halves of the story, adding to the sense of connectivity) do a remarkable job, and it’s a good thing too because Bellocchio’s camera adores close-ups. It’s much more interested in the geography of facial expressions of fear and desire than the surrounding physical environments.
That’s not to say the settings aren’t felt, however. On the contrary, the monastery, its nearby river, and the town of Bobbio become profoundly familiar places through these characters. The spoken word and the sonorous score assume the form of incantations through Bellocchio’s and cinematographer Daniele Cipri’s subtle, gliding camera work. In this way, conversations — and there are some truly fascinating and amusing ones — become the film’s molten core. Acquired taste, to be sure, but “Blood Of My Blood” has a haunting, sui generis style that gleefully sinks its fangs into those unsuspecting victims who willingly submit to its overwhelming charm. [A-]