Of life and death

There is an Italian film-maker, still living and creating, who carries the whole modern evolution of his country in himself and his work. Marco Bellocchio never went international like his contemporary Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor). He avoided the sudden blaze and extinction of Pier Paolo Pasolini. In the 47 years since he delivered shock therapy to European and world cinema with I Pugni in Tasca (Fists in the Pocket) – an everyday tale of murder, incest and madness in a Catholic middle-class family inspired by his own – Bellocchio has been the chronicler of Italy’s conscience and often its scourge.

His 2009 film Vincere showed the director’s manic expressive side undimmed. The story of Mussolini was told with a sarcastic, explosive panache, using Il Duce’s own propaganda tropes (newsreels, heroic photos) to interrogate his legend. Bellocchio’s new film Bella Addormentata (Dormant Beauty), premiered at the recent Venice Film Festival and, opening now in Italy and other countries, amplifies an Italian cause célèbre: the debate that raged over whether doctors should sustain the life of the 17-year coma victim Eluana Englaro. Englaro died finally in 2009 after her case had caused a schism in the government itself.

“A judge recognised her father’s request to end Eluana’s life,” explains Bellocchio. “[Silvio] Berlusconi’s government, supported by the Catholic church, responded by pushing through a decree against assisted death. But the president [Giorgio Napolitano] refused to sign it. At that time Eluana died.”

The film is set on the day leading up to her death, with an entire country seemingly seized and inflamed by the issues. Bellocchio says: “The film is not about Eluana Englaro herself, nor her family. It’s about invented characters leading their own lives. You see her story in the background. The television is a protagonist.” (As it was, memorably, in Bellocchio’s stablemate film about the Aldo Moro kidnapping, Good Morning, Night.) “Each character and story will remind us of Eluana. They all have a thematic and emotional connection with that event.”

Maya Sansa and Pier Giorgio Bellocchio in ‘Dormant Beauty’

These were Bellocchio’s words when we met at last year’s Venice festival. Hot from receiving a Golden Lion in honour of his career, he was then in pre-production on Dormant Beauty. Back this year, he expands more on the origin of the idea – which took form during a conversation with his daughter, who was obsessed with the case – and on the metaphorical resonance of the “living death” theme. Each character in the tale is awoken from a different kind of sleep: from the Berlusconi politician (Toni Servillo) stirred by conscience to break rank with his party, to the actress and mother (Isabelle Huppert) berated by her son for sacrificing her life and career to a coma-victim daughter.

The veteran film-maker is a young-looking 72, with the Vittorio Gassman-style good looks that almost got him an acting career. At the 2011 Golden Lion tribute, we saw his teenage exam audition on film, a few seconds of smouldering soliloquy. “I studied acting but I instantly became more interested in directing and turned to that.” Whereupon failure became the route to triumph. “I didn’t get my diploma. I spent some time in England wondering what I should do. I developed a script, putting on paper my feelings about my life. I worked on this personal story, wondering how to make it a film, and it slowly became Fists in the Pocket. On one side was this screenplay and intended film in which I wanted to destroy my family. On the other hand, I had to ask for my parents’ money to make it.” (Shooting took place in his mother’s country house near Piacenza.)

Those who lived in Rome during the 1960s can testify to the total hysteria that greeted the film’s release. It was embraced by every young Italian with even an inclination towards the left – although Bellocchio today carefully distinguishes and demarcates his own brand of radicalism.

“I was interested in Marxism and communism, but I never espoused them. I was anarchistic in my beliefs. I wanted to march against all institutions, from the family to the government.” Those are closely identified with each other in his films, from Fists to China Is Near (1967), from Leap into the Void (1980), a tale of tormented middle-aged siblings that won Cannes acting prizes for Michel Piccoli and Anouk Aimée, to his adaptation of Pirandello’s Henry IV (1984) starring Marcello Mastroianni.

“The church and state both consider the family as the ultimate weapon against anarchy – the core cell of society. In Italy a great deal of importance is attached to the child staying with the family till adulthood. The problem is, the young person wants to leave but can’t find work. The enforced coexistence creates a great deal of damage. My memories of my own family are not violent or terrible. But there was a certain infelicità – a dry formality of feeling and behaviour, a different kind of violence.”

The other great signature work of Bellocchio’s early years, Nel Nome del Padre (In the Name of the Father), was shown at Venice last year in a new director’s cut – which actually ran 20 minutes shorter. The film’s rabid surrealism was startling and powerful in 1971, and the satirical picture of a Catholic seminary still astonishes. “Less Brecht, more Vigo,” the director says, though even Jean Vigo – the radical French surrealist film-maker of Zéro de Conduite (poeticised anarchy in a boarding school) – might hesitate to feature a Virgin Mary teaching young boys how to masturbate.

“It was a troubled era. The church was starting to become liberalised but previously you could have been excommunicated for speaking out against Catholicism. At the same time there was a new political extremism, the beginnings of terrorism. The whole film, its grotesquerie, its desperation, tries to push this feeling of a time of turmoil.”

Bellocchio says Italy has now changed entirely. “I see a country that is depressed and tired. The Berlusconi government was more interested in saving itself than solving the nation’s problems. Today?” He shrugs. The shrug says a thousand words, which pretty much defines what Bellocchio sees as the duty and beauty of cinema.

“Ideally I would like to make silent films, to allow images to prevail over words.” He came closest, he feels, in Vincere. “It was quite natural for me to use newsreels, archive material, images from the past, because in those days the word was a rarity on screen. The power of the picture had to speak for you. In Good Morning, Night and Dormant Beauty, it is more difficult. These stories are based on real recent events and debates. You need words. But here, too, I use the media and television as a kind of visual magma: a presence that can impose, with or without your hearing the words. The media are the background to all our lives. You can turn off their sound but you cannot turn off their influence.”

‘Dormant Beauty’ will be shown at the London Film Festival on October 20 and 21 www.bfi.org.uk/lff

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