My Mother’s Smile, 2002

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.

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