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.
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