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I Pugni in tasca, 1965
[Fists in the Pocket]

CastelAn off-screen male voice reads an anonymous note, meticulously assembled from clipped newsprint letters and addressed to a woman named Lucia (Jeannie MacNeil), bearing the scandalous information of a long-term affair between her fiancé Augusto (Marino Masé) and the note's author in a possessive and desperate attempt to drive the unsuspecting young woman away. It is an incendiary disclosure that takes on an even more malicious and baffling dimension when the reader, Augusto, expresses his suspicion that his own sister Giulia (Paola Pitagora) had composed the malevolent, fabricated story, perhaps in order to prevent their impending marriage and consequently, his inevitable departure from his blind mother's (Liliana Gerace) hillside family villa on the outskirts of town and planned relocation to an apartment in the city. The sinister and implicitly incestuous tone of the couple's brief argument is further broached on a subsequent episode when Augusto encounters the narcissistic Giulia waiting on the side of a road for him - presumptuously expecting to be rescued from the flirtatious taunting of two crude revelers on a motorcycle (as she, in turn, coyishly spurns them with feigned annoyance) - and on the way home, reveals that their brother Alessandro (Lou Castel) has written a love poem for her. In an intriguingly metaphoric and ominous character introduction shot, Alessandro, the adrift, melancholic, and perennially unemployed brother, seemingly falls from the sky (ostensibly from an out of view tree limb) and lands into the frame of an empty landscape before insinuating himself between his younger brother Leone (Pier Luigi Troglio) (who, like Alessandro, also suffers from chronic epileptic seizures) and Leone's pet rabbits in order to personally tend to their care. It is Alessandro's complex and irreconcilable persona - samaritan and bully, unrequited romantic and repressed voyeur - that ultimately exposes the innate depravity of the household as the tormented, self-destructive young man resolves to liberate his older brother from his perceived (and assumed) burden of responsibility towards his helpless and emotionally crippled family.

Auspiciously (and with inevitable controversy) ushering a compelling introduction into the provocative, overarching themes of Marco Bellocchio's radical and uncompromising sociopolitical cinema, Fists in the Pocket in an austere and harrowing portrait of amorality, alienation, complacency, and inertia. Bellocchio presents moral desolation and psychological fracture through the manifestation of physical disability (an involuntary metastasis similarly incorporated in Bruno Dumont's Life of Jesus and Tsai Ming-liang's The River), in order to provide an allegorical examination of the intrinsic corruption and perverting nature of fascism's inherently isolative, centralized authority: the incestuous behavior of Giulia, Alessandro, and Augusto that reflect the inbredness of their territorialized, self-perpetuating roles within the household; Giulia's narcissism and acts of emotional sabotage to keep the nuclear family intact; Alessandro's unpredictable, violent tendencies towards anomalous conduct and exhibition of human weakness. By depicting the betraying, autonomic, internalized physical ruptures of a decadent, privileged family's self-consuming dysfunctional interrelationships and venal attempts at myopic self-preservation, Bellocchio illustrates the futility of inaction and apathy, and the moral imperative of individuality and personal conscience.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Enrico IV, 1984
[Henry IV]

Mastroianni A lone automobile makes its way through the Italian countryside early one morning en route to the remote medieval castle of an eccentric aristocrat (Marcello Mastroianni) who for years has lived an insular existence under the delusion that he is the excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Twenty years earlier, an emotionally fragile young "Henry" (Luciano Bartoli) suffered from a concussion after being thrown from his horse during a pageant fair and, awakening to the crushing sight of his beloved Matilda (Latou Chardons) entertaining the affections of another suitor, suffered a psychotic break during the evening's festivities. Leading a life of seeming perpetual anachronism, Henry has retreated into the confines of the castle walls in the perpetual mindset of a 26 year old, attended to by a few family and friends who pay occasional visits, and a staff of trusted employees who humor his delusion by dressing in period costume and catering to his innocuous whims. Now, years later, Henry's nephew has taken up his uncle's seemingly hopeless cause, spurred in part by his devoted mother's belief shortly before her death that her brother was nearly cured from his psychological affliction by requesting the services of a psychiatrist (Leopoldo Trieste) to evaluate Henry's mental health. Accompanied by the indirect cause of Henry's psychological fracture - his unrequited object of affection Matilda (Claudia Cardinale), now a middle-aged woman married to his then romantic rival Belcredi (Paolo Bonacelli) - the psychiatrist devises a plan to mentally shock the unwitting patient back into reality with the assistance of Matilda's daughter Frida (L. Chardons) who bears a striking resemblance to the younger Matilda. Donning the guise of a monk, the psychiatrist poses as the king's advocate to Pope Gregory VII, tapping into Henry's sincere and increasingly desperate entreaties to be granted absolution that he believes will free him from his imprisonment.

Based on the stage play by seminal 20th century dramatist Luigi Pirandello (who prefigures the Theater of the Absurd postwar movement), Henry IV is a taut, incisive, and elegantly distilled exposition on madness, impersonation, performance, and façade. Marco Bellocchio retains the hermeticism of the Pirandello play through natural (under) lighting, confined interior spaces, and episodes of communal activity that reflect an overarching sense of intimate scrutiny: Henry's further isolation from the rest of the castle through a retracting gate, his inextricable companionship of entertainers and advisors, audibly and visually accessible anterooms that preclude privacy. It is not accidental that the film's introduction to the now middle-aged Henry is through a disrobed image as he receives his morning massage - a figurative reflection of his liberation from the traps of social and personal artifice - a paradoxical nakedness that results from an absence of pretense in his assumed role. In contrast, the match cut of Matilda's elaborate preparations before attending court as she incessantly fusses with her costume in front of a mirror (an image that recalls an earlier shot in the parked car as she fastidiously checks her veiled appearance and consequently loses track of time) illustrates an inherent vanity in her perceived role: initially, as the sirenic beauty who lured young Henry to the point of madness, and subsequently, as the seeming benevolent miracle worker who can cure him (note that her actions are similarly performed by Belcredi and the psychiatrist). It is this process of unmasking that ultimately exposes the root of madness: a delusive narcissism that supplants expedient, social role-playing in the absence of enlightened soul-seaching for one's true identity.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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L'Ora di religione: Il sorriso di mia madre, 2002
[Religion Hour: My Mother's Smile]

Castellitto A young boy named Leonardo (Alberto Mondini) distractedly paces outside his home within view of his quizzical mother Irene (Jacqueline Lustig) as he seemingly conducts an impassioned conversation with himself. Distressed by the overwhelming concept of an omniscient God (an idea that he has recently learned during his religion study hour at school) from whom he cannot escape and therefore, can never be truly free, Leonardo attempts to drive God away with his childish obstinacy, prompting Irene to enlist the aid of her estranged husband Ernesto (Sergio Castellitto) to help his son reconcile with the seemingly disquieting ramification of the absence of free will in a God-created universe. However, Irene's well-intentioned request invariably proves counterproductive as the atheistic Ernesto instead offers up his own vision of death, heaven, and the meaning of eternity to his impressionable son: one that is predicated on reaching an age of maturity to decide which life moment to immortalize rather than striving for a state of grace and redemption. Nevertheless, Ernesto's expedient answers to issues of faith cannot be so readily dispensed when he is requested to attend the second hearing for his mother's canonization by a Vatican emissary - a petition for which he had not been involved and whose progress had been intentionally concealed from him by his family - so that he may provide testimony on the nebulous circumstances surrounding his mother's purported martyrdom. Years earlier, his mother had been stabbed to death by his mentally unstable brother Egidio who has testified that she was asleep at the time of the attack and refuses to recant. On the other hand, his brothers Ettore (Gigio Alberti), a converted Catholic, and Eugenio (Lino Bonanni), a monsignor who has dedicated most of his life to overseas missionary work, assert that their mother was killed in the act of trying to cure Egidio's blaspheming with forbearance and compassion. A miracle has already been attributed in her name: the curing of a mentally deranged man who pseudonymously calls himself Filippo Argenti (perhaps after a character in Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy: Inferno) after invoking her name in prayer. The path for his mother's canonization has been cleared, but only if Ernesto can break the impasse between his brothers and validate her virtuous attempts to silence her son's blasphemy.

Marco Bellocchio creates a richly textured, incisive, and provocative examination of outmoded faith, breakdown of family, and spiritual desolation in My Mother's Smile. From an early episode of Ernesto digitally embellishing - or more appropriately, defacing - a rendered image of Piazza Venezia on a computer in his multimedia studio, Bellocchio illustrates the integration of surreal imagery within a realist framework that visually reflects the characters' internal reality. Note the unrealistically sanitized re-enactment of the mother's stabbing for a photo shoot that presents the inherent contradiction between Ernesto's memories of his mother's human frailties and her recently cultivated reputation as a candidate saint, and also the curiously coincidental appearance of Leonardo's improbably beautiful religion teacher Diana Sereni (Chiara Conti) into Ernesto's life during hearings into his mother's canonization that alludes to feelings of self-doubt and perhaps even conspiracy. Furthermore, the film's incongruous - and often anachronistic - depiction of empty rituals and cultural traditions illustrate their seeming disconnection (if not irrelevance) from the everyday lives of ordinary people in contemporary society: the implicitly incestuous union between the church and the monarchists at a dinner party that underscores their history of consolidated power, elitism, and privilege; Ernesto's instruction to Leonardo on the proper way to make a habitual sign of the cross before a meal, the supplicants' genuflection on the staircase during their pilgrimage, and Ernesto's early morning duel with Count Bulla (Toni Bertorelli) that is absurdly carried out to preserve the semblance of social nobility rather than defeat an ideological enemy. In the end, it is this resigned (and trivialized) acceptance of religion as afterlife "insurance" and obligatory performance of empty rituals that is reflected in Diana's recited passage "That is not enough" from Russian poet Arseni Tarkovsky (father of Andrei Tarkovsky) to a skeptical Ernesto: a longing to find true spiritual transcendence beneath the seductive ornamentation and ostentatious display of meaningless articles of faith.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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