The Films of Marco Bellocchio: Part 1 - The Early Films (1965 - 1984)

It would be difficult to trying to compress or pin down Marco Bellocchio's 50 year career to fit into stylistic periods, genres or themes, but it's not that there isn't a singular focus or a firmness of purpose in the often controversial treatment of his subjects. The obsessive recurring motifs in almost all Bellocchio's films can clearly be seen to relate back to the filmmaker's reaction against his well-off provincial family background growing up in Bobbio in the province of Piacenza, and the repressive influence of Italian Catholic society in the 1950s. Bellocchio's films are often marked then by acts of rebellion and madness against these inhibitors to personal and creative freedom, but they surface in many different guises and develop progressively throughout his career.

The BFI Southbank in association with Ciné Lumière at the Institut Français present the first complete retrospective of all Marco Bellocchio's features at the BFI Southbank throughout the month of July 2018 (Satire & Morality: The Cinema of Marco Bellocchio) giving the viewer the opportunity to join up the dots of one of the world's greatest living filmmakers whose works are rarely seen or distributed outside Italy. The director's filmmaking style and techniques however, influenced as much by art, literature and psychoanalysis as personal autobiographical incident, have a way of confounding any expectations or summation the viewer might have of his work as a whole.

Bellocchio's earliest films are marked by his experiences growing up in a small provincial Italian town, and in many respects those formative experiences carry though to his most recent films. The key film in Bellocchio's early career is his extraordinary debut feature Fists in the Pocket (I Pugni in Tasca, 1965), a film that seems to set out to exorcise a number of personal demons stemming from belonging to a provincial Italian family, living in their own world, detached from reality. Filmed in the Bellocchio family home, the shocking violence from Sandro (Lou Castel) seems to emerge out of a rotting corruption at the heart of this twisted family unit, where any sense of individualism or personal identity has been twisted through the repressive lens of social class conventions and religion. It gives the film an anarchic edge with a dark seam of violence and madness that appears to be in tune and even foreshadow sentiments that would lead to disorder on the streets in 1968.

In the Name of the Father (Nel Nome del Padre, 1971) also exhibits revolutionary sentiments seen in other Bellocchio films of this period that challenge the state as a patriarchy, the abuse of power, the tyranny of religion and the suppression of the individual. Set in a Catholic religious boarding school it's also concerned about the kind of generation that such institutions are breeding, with particular emphasis on a certain Italian Catholic character of fascism and vice, and Bellocchio is just as outspoken and challenging in his methods of representing it on screen. In the Name of the Father also takes in a wider social perspective on the dangerous impulses in the Italian male character that are deformed by society, by culture, politics and religion, with rebellion among the house servants below stairs also threatening to overthrow the old order. What is likely to appear in its place doesn't look terribly promising.

Undertaken as a commission, from a script by Sergio Donati, Slap the Monster on Page One (Sbatti Il Mostro In Prima Pagina, 1972) is a rather more conventional thriller for Bellocchio, closer to the 70's Italian socio-political crime thrillers of Elio Petri. The film deals with the morally corrupt editor of a right-wing newspaper (Gian Maria Volonté) who resorts to lurid headlines to try to pin the rape and murder of a young girl on a member of a militant left-wing group of activists. Bellocchio reworked the material to express some wider concerns about the combined power of religion, politics, the press and popular opinion on Italian society, ideas that he wold return to and develop in a more personal, expansive and interiorised way in later films like Good Morning, Night (2003), Vincere (2009) and Dormant Beauty (2012).

There is some measure of social commentary in Bellocchio's semi-autobiographical studies of family dysfunction and in the need to liberate oneself from bourgeois conventions, morality and repression, but in the process his films in the 1970s take in a much wider exploration of religion, politics, fascism, sexuality and in particular masculinity within the context of Italian society. If you can reduce the issues of all those different perspectives down to one single theme, it's about the exercise of power, and it creates an unusual dynamic in Bellocchio's film on the military establishment Victory March (Marcia trionfale, 1976). There is actually a kind of twisted family unit established between Captain Asciutto, the brutal commander of an army barracks, his sexually abused wife and a young new recruit Passieri. The film explores the power dynamic in that parody of a family, and has important points to make about who really wields it, how they wield it, and how ultimately power weakens those who lust for it.

Bellocchio stance on the corrupting influence of modern society and its repression of freedom of expression in his films so far has been increasingly uncompromising, explicit and controversial in their personal vision, but the director would enrich the palette every now and again with literary adaptations of famous works. On the surface The Seagull (Il Gabbiano, 1977) appears to be a relatively straightforward adaptation of Chekhov's play but it also relates closely to the director's breakthrough debut film Fists in the Pocket, with Kostia an equivalent to the Lou Castel's Sandro. Sandro's anger and fury are there in Kostia, but at the same time, Bellocchio wants to find and believe in the ability of the artist in Boris to take reality and transform it into art, and for art to become his obsession. That obsession is however likely to be the source of great family discord and personal soul-searching, and it comes with a profound emotional cost. As is often the case in Bellocchio own personal family experience, the results are madness and suicide.

That is also the case in Bellocchio's subsequent film, A Leap in the Dark (Salto nel vuoto, 1980). The film opens in a fairly direct fashion with an investigation into the death of a woman who has leaped from her window of her apartment into the courtyard, but this is only the first of many glimpses that the film offers us into characters wavering on the brink, driven by madness and obsessions to the edge of contemplating suicide. The film is all about control, about recognising the restrictions that life, religion and society place on an artistic, creative person, and how difficult and necessary it can be to abandon it all and take a leap into the void. For Bellocchio it's not enough to simply state this and explore it, but even put it into practice in the act of filmmaking, and the film blurs and overlaps dreams with reality, breaking down conventional narrative to explore differing subjective views of reality.

There are signs in The Eyes, the Mouth (Gli Occhi La Bocca, 1982) however that Bellocchio has taken his obsession with family, death, suicide and madness to its limit but still hasn't yet found the means to take it to a new level. That would come soon in his collaborations with the controversial professor of radical psychotherapy, Massimo Fagioli, but here, the spirit of Fists in the Pocket still exerts its influence, with Lou Castel as Giovanni more or less reprising the role of 'Sandro'. Here he plays an actor called Giovanni who has escaped from a difficult bourgeois family life in a provincial Italian city, his greatest success being a film called I Pugni in Tasca. Bellocchio attempts to explore conflicting realities through such self-referential devices, blurring the lines further with Giovanni impersonating and replacing his twin brother who has committed suicide (Bellocchio's own twin brother committed suicide in 1968). The stifling environment and fractious family situations are still intense, but even with a starry cast, there is little that is new in the way that Bellocchio makes the same observations about bourgeois life.

It's perhaps no surprise that when it comes to dealing with issues of madness and trying to find a way through it to relate to an alternative way of looking at the world, that Bellocchio would often turn to the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello and his shifting sense of reality. In Henry IV (Enrico IV, 1984) a young man suffers from a fall from his horse during a costume party and believes himself to be King Henry IV, the Emperor of Germany. His wealthy family create a medieval world in a mountaintop castle as a comfort zone for 'Enrico' (Marcello Mastroianni) to live in his madness, but 20 years after the accident, they bring a psychiatrist who they hope might be able to cure him of his delusions. The nature of characters and play-acting adds another level of Pirandellian ambiguity that is imposed on the drama, and that suits Bellocchio's purposes too in terms of art, literature, drama, music and film being a cure not for madness, but an escape from the untrue 'reality' of the world that we permit to restrict our freedoms and our minds.

Diavolo in corpo (Devil in the Flesh) in 1986 - which is covered in Part 2 of this feature on Marco Bellocchio - marks a turning point in the director's career. Working closely with the controversial Italian psychotherapist, Massimo Fagioli, Bellocchio's films would take on less of a conventional narrative and follow a freer psychological or psychoanalytical undercurrent in order to push boundaries and expression even further past conventional narrative techniques and indeed conventional thought. Often then a surreal aspect can be seen to break through or blur the lines between what we can perhaps describe as the conscious real-world and a subconscious representation of deeper desires and impulses.

A retrospective of the films of Marco Bellocchio, Satire & Morality: The Cinema of Marco Bellocchio is showing at the BFI Southbank, with some selected films showing at the Institut Français Ciné Lumière.

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