Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca) Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 1 release of Fists in the Pocket, a 1965 film directed by Marco Bellocchio that remains a controversial landmark in Italian cinema. Criterion’s DVD is up to their usual standards visually and aurally, though with fewer extras.

Augusto (Marino Masè) is the oldest of four children. His father is dead and his mother (Liliana Gerace) is blind. His two younger brothers, Alessandro (Lou Castel) and Leone (Pierluigi Troglio) are epileptics and the latter is also retarded. His sister Giulia (Paola Pitagora) is hardly any more stable, and at the beginning of the film has sent an anonymous note to Augusto’s girlfriend Lucia (Jenny MacNeil) telling her that he doesn’t love her and “she” is carrying his child. Augusto wants to break away from this less than functional family, so Alessandro takes it upon himself to rid Augusto of this burden…

Marco Bellocchio’s debut feature caused considerable controversy on its release in 1965, with its savaging of the sacred family unit, and a plot that involves two murders and a central character (played with considerable intensity by Swedish actor Lou Castel) who harbours incestuous desires towards his sister. Needless to say, forty years later the shock value has worn off, but the film still has an impact. Only in its use of black and white does it show its age. At the time, monochrome was still a commercially viable option, and was considered more naturalistic than colour, something that with the increased sensitivity of colour stock is no longer the case.

Although Bellocchio continues to make films to this day, Fists in the Pocket casts a long shadow over his career. Some people suggest that he has not lived up to his first feature. How much that is justified is hard to say, at least from a British perspective. If Bellocchio is not usually spoken of in the same breath as other Italian directors of his generation (such as Bernardo Bertolucci, only four months younger and born some fifty kilometres away) then distribution is, as so often, part of the reason. Between Fists in the Pocket receiving its original X certificate from the BBFC in 1965 and its reissue in 1998 (with a 12) only 1972’s In the Name of the Father seems to have had commercial distribution. Leap into the Void was shown on BBC2 in their then Saturday night Film International slot in 1982 – I watched it, but remember almost nothing of it twenty-four years later. More recently, Good Morning, Night had a British release. However, Bellocchio’s best-known film apart from his debut is one that has never had a British release due to censorship fears at the time: 1986’s Devil in the Flesh, a worthwhile if overlong film doomed to be overshadowed because it contains a short scene involving a name actress (Maruschka Detmers) performing unsimulated fellatio on her co-star. (The film was shown uncut at the 1990 Piccadilly Film Festival, which is where I saw it. There’s no doubt that the film would be passed uncut if it were submitted to the BBFC now.)

In his video afterword, Bertolucci distinguishes between his own cinematic “poetry” (technical virtuosity and expressive use of camera movement) and Bellocchio’s “prose”, a less self-conscious, less “visible” camera, a style perhaps derived from the early 60s English New Wave. That is why reason why the film holds up so well today, when the controversies have faded: nothing dates faster than modishness. Prose, at its best, can be just as powerful as poetry. Ennio Morricone’s score – featuring a high soprano voice and church bells – is spare but extremely effective, and Alberto Marrama’s black and white photography is sharp and unfussy. Ironically, given the film’s subject matter, the film was made with £28,000 borrowed from Bellocchio’s family and the main location is his mother’s house!

Fists in the Pocket is number 333 in the Criterion Collection, and is encoded for Region 1 only. Incidentally, I have seen the film’s running time cited as being as long as 113 minutes (the BBFC site says 110:43). This DVD runs 108:47 but I don’t have any grounds to doubt that this version is the complete one. Maybe the additional minutes, if not an error, are playout music. The present version has no end credits: Morricone’s score plays over a black screen and fades out when the copyright notice comes up.

The DVD transfer is in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. There really is nothing I could fault here: the picture is sharp, contrast fine, blacks are solid and there are many shades of grey. It’s the sort of monochrome-naturalistic look that has vanished from cinema screens in the last forty years. Even without making any allowances for the film’s age, this is a very fine transfer.

The soundtrack is mono, mixed to play via the centre channel. Again, nothing really to fault here. The film was postsynchronised – as almost all Italian films were at the time – which gives a slight hollowness and lack of ambience to the track. Also, the two non-Italians in the cast (Lou Castel and Jenny MacNeil, who is English) are dubbed, which occasionally causes lapses in lip-synch. However, all of this is down to the original materials, and the track on this DVD sounds fine otherwise, with clear dialogue and sound effects. The English subtitles are removable, and there are eighteen chapter stops.

This is a single-disc Criterion DVD, and there are fewer extras than on some of their other releases – for one thing, no commentary. However, there is a featurette, “A Need for Change: Making Fists in the Pocket”, which runs 33:28 and has eight chapters. This follows the usual pattern of film extracts and stills, plus interviews. The interviewees are Bellocchio, Castel, Paola Pitagora, editor Silvano Agosti and critic Tullio Kezich, and all are informative. They discuss the film from its inception, its making and its reception first at the Locarno Festival and then at Venice, and the performances, Castel’s in particular. Apparently Luis Buñuel saw the film and disapproved, demonstrating that the generation gap applies even to provocateurs.
There are some oddities, however. Castel’s interview (for some reason he’s lying in a hammock), which he conducts in English, and Kezich’s (which is in Italian) are in 16:9 anamorphic, while the other interviews (all in Italian) are in 4:3, pillarboxed.

Also on the disc is an afterword by Bernardo Bertolucci, shot in Rome in 2005. This is in 16:9 anamorphic and runs 10:26. Speaking in English, he discusses how he and Bellocchio were linked due to their similar ages and geographical provenance, and their aesthetic differences (discussed above). He points out that Italian cinema, under the influence of the French New Wave was looking for something different to the neo-realism which had dominated the national cinema since the 1940s, and in Fists in the Pocket and Bertolucci’s contemporary Before the Revolution, they may have found it.

The remaining item on the disc is the theatrical trailer, which begins with lists of awards won and critics quoted before showing any extracts from the film itself. It runs 3:53 and is 1.85:1 anamorphic. Finally, a booklet features a new essay by Deborah Young, a 1967 interview with Bellocchio and film and DVD credits.

Fists in the Pocket is a landmark in Italian cinema, and demonstrates that Marco Bellocchio (who is still active) should perhaps be better known in the UK and USA. Criterion’s DVD has fewer extras than usual, but is up to their usual standard.


Updated: May 22, 2006

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