The Films of Marco Bellocchio: Part 2 – The Later Films (1986 – 2016)

Marco Bellocchio’s earlier films (see Part 1) were fairly hard-hitting in their style and anti-establishment stance, unafraid to satirise some of the most important and influential institutions in Italian society, but the structure and narrative of those films were still fairly conventional and based largely on autobiographical family details, social themes and literary sources. Within that there was some attempt to push expression of those themes to their limits by incorporating elements of free-flowing dream narrative, but it was clear that Bellocchio wanted to extend those methods further, and he would achieve that through the assistance and consultancy of his friend, the controversial psychotherapist Massimo Fagioli.

Initially applying Fagioli’s psychoanalytical studies and his psychotherapy techniques to the subject of sexual liberation in Devil in the Flesh (Diavolo in corpo, 1986) proved however to be highly controversial. The original idea and source material is a love story, but Bellocchio evidently focusses on how it connects to themes he had developed in his earlier films; the oppression of bourgeois family life, the weight of social conventions and the resultant madness that results if one is not able to liberate oneself from their influence. Fagioli’s consultative role in the film permitted Bellocchio to explore an alternative non-didactic treatment of the subject and it’s a taboo-breaking and adventurous leap forward in filmmaking terms that still retains a capacity to shock and surprise, but there remains an uncomfortable sense of exploitation around the alleged application of experimental psychotherapeutic techniques on the young inexperienced actors.

With its copious 80s European arthouse movie nudity featuring Bette Blue’s Béatrice Dalle, it’s easy to dismiss The Witches Sabbath (La Visione del Sabba, 1988) as somewhat lurid and exploitative, and indeed there’s not much here in the way of plot. Bellocchio blends together two different periods, one in the mid-17th century where a young woman is subjected to extreme trials by religious authorities who accuse her of being a witch, the other in the present day where the same woman, a 357-year-old witch, is being examined by a young psychiatrist after she has killed a man who she claims sexually assaulted her. The essence of the film is again about resisting any patriarchal authority that restricts freedom of human expression, but Bellocchio applies the same principles to his filmmaking techniques, choosing to regard any kind of objective rationalism or conventional narrative structure as being unnecessarily restrictive of a filmmaker who wants to explore deeper human motivations, desires and behaviour.

Fagioli’s contribution to Bellocchio’s films initially as a consultant would extend to providing the scripts for The Conviction (La Condanna, 1991) and The Butterfly’s Dream (Il sogno della farfalla, 1994), and in these two films Bellocchio adopts a much more open free-flowing, abstract conceptual and analytical approach towards the subjects and their narrative development. The Butterfly’s Dream is consequently much more European arthouse than is usually the case for a Bellocchio film, an impression perhaps heightened by the casting of Ingmar Bergman actress Bibi Andersson. She plays the mother of Massimo, a promising young theatre actor who remains silent in his life and only communicates by reciting texts from plays. That suggests that the film is partly an examination of the purpose of art, and at the same time a self-expression of the role of a filmmaker; a metaphor to explore the boundary between the personal life and the creative life of an artist. As far as Bellocchio’s involvement with Fagioli is concerned however, it’s more about seeing the world differently, looking to incorporate literature, stories, dreams and impressions as way of reaching a deeper psychological truth that lies within and beyond outward actions and behaviours.

Returning to other literary influences that correspond with alternative ways of viewing reality through psychoanalytical practice and the interpretation of dreams, Heinrich von Kleist’s drama The Prince of Homburg (Il Principe di Homburg, 1996) opens up another interesting avenue to explore, that of a mindset that holds a romantic association with death. Court-martialled, found guilty and sentenced to death for not following orders on the battlefield despite saving the day through his heroic actions, the Prince of Homburg is appalled at the prospect of death but honour dictates that he cannot in all conscience call the decision unjust. Bellocchio’s telling of the story blurs the distinction between reality and dreams to follow subconscious impulses, imperatives and mind traps, exploring the reality of how the prospect of death heightens an awareness of the Prince’s own mortality and encroaching non-existence. The film never feels romanticised, but is darkly beautiful and unflinching in its exploration of an indefinable reality, feverish in how it converts this into a dream-like psychological state. The ending seems to overturn the Prince’s romantic embracing of death in Kleist’s drama, but it’s actually gloriously ambiguous in its attempt to tie the Prince’s conflicting desire for life and death into a dream where both are fulfilled.

In The Nanny (La Balia 1999), Bellocchio turns once again to Pirandello as a way of exploring some deep and complex sentiments related to human experience that are not easily expressed in words. On the surface the conflicting dialectic in the film seems to be a class one. A wealthy doctor seeks out a poor country woman from a remote village to act as wet nurse for his newborn child at a time when revolution is stirring on the streets of Rome, but in some ways the political unrest is just a means to express the deeper needs of the individual to seek their own freedom and exercise their own choices. Mental illness is always close to the surface in a Bellocchio film, Dr Mori even running an asylum treating mentally ill women, and madness always remains a option, whether literally or in the abstract sense as a means of breaking down social and self-restricting barriers to personal freedom. For the nanny at least, there is a way of exercising control over her life and the troubling sentiments that she struggles to put into words in learning how to read and write from the doctor, both of them in the process learning to accept what they don’t know and be prepared to follow a truer path off the steady road.

I don’t know if you could ever say that Marco Bellocchio recognises a spiritual side of humanity in his films, but he certainly believes that there is more to the capacity of human existence than we permit ourselves to recognise. It’s in Bellocchio’s later films that we see his characters discover their potential and achieve a kind of higher state of grace by putting love above everything else. My Mother’s Smile (L’ora di religione (Il sorriso di mia madre), 2002) is a perfect synthesis of many of Bellocchio’s recurring themes – family, death, madness, religion, art – and his expression of a world here that is restrictive of personal freedoms is given a delightfully twist of heightened reality that highlights its absurdity. Artist Ernesto Picciafuoco (Sergio Castellito) is shocked to discover that his mother is going to be canonised by the Catholic Church, a heroic martyr who is on her way to becoming a saint, but Ernesto is an unbeliever and unwilling or unable to confirm the details the church authorities need for her beatification. Bellocchio finds many terrific musical, visual and narrative means to express Ernesto’s inner struggle, but the closing animation of the destruction of Rome’s Vittorio Emanuele II monstrosity, the ‘Altare della Patria’, is a perfect expression of Ernesto tearing down the monuments to man’s vanity and choosing love instead.

Although Bellocchio was actively engaged in the Communist Union in the 1960s and his leftist leanings undoubtedly inform his views on many of the subjects in his films, politics are rarely addressed directly. Even Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, notte, 2003) which deals with the real-life kidnapping and murder of the former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978, is less concerned with the political implications and actions of the Red Brigade kidnappers than an attempt to understand and explore the mindsets of the people involved. In a way it’s not only Moro who is a prisoner, but his captors are also trapped by ideological slogans and beliefs that prevent them from recognising truth and reality. The perspective of Chiara, a woman leading a double life as an ordinary government worker and at the same time being one of the most-wanted terrorists in the country, emphasises this disconnect from reality. Her interior conflict is represented by some powerful dream sequences which capture her feelings of paranoia, political idealism and wish-fulfilment and create a powerful sense of jarring displacement where – like the techniques employed in The Prince of Homburg – there is an alternate playing out of events that substitutes a subjective reality for the historical one.

Despite the high quotient of autobiography in many of his films and some allusions to the process and purpose of the artist, Bellocchio very rarely indulges in any self-referential meditations on the nature of filmmaking itself in his work. So when you have a filmmaker in creative crisis with women troubles aligned with a general tone of absurdity, it’s not surprising that The Wedding Director (Il Regista di Matrimoni, 2006) comes across as his own version of 8 1/2. For a Marco Bellocchio film the tone is delightfully playful and dazzlingly creative, the film wavering between an enhanced paranoid reality and a dream-world state, but Bellocchio uses such scenes to explore or perhaps just reiterate in a knowing self-regarding fashion familiar themes and frustrations found in his films regarding dysfunctional families (wealthy ones) and the Catholic Church. Brilliantly crafted, populated with familiar Bellocchian actors and situations, there is a certainly a lighter humorous touch employed that we usually find with Bellocchio, but occasionally the filmmaker’s frustrations do spill over into outright anger.

There’s an even more striking almost schizophrenic division between subjective impressions and an enhanced reality in Vincere (2009), Bellocchio exploring the disturbed mindset of one significant individual and applying it to the mass ‘insanity’ of a nation that fell under the thrall of Benito Mussolini. The film recounts the little known story of Ida Dalser, with claimed to have been Mussolini’s secret first wife, with whom he had a child. Her stubborn refusal to back down from this claim after Mussolini comes to power as Il Duce, sees her locked in an insane asylum for most of her life. Mixing documentary footage with a subjective romantic viewpoint, the film almost approaches a level of parody, but there’s more here than empty stylisation, Bellocchio evoking the period and its shifting tides in a surge of emotions that illuminate otherwise inexplicable behaviours in Italian society. The results are dazzling and persuasive. More than dealing with the ambiguous question of Ida Dalser and her alleged marriage to Benito Mussolini, Vincere has forceful points to make about power and religion, and its influence on the identity and character of the Italian people still has relevance in today’s political climate.

Filmed over the course of ten years in six distinct episodes shot in the director’s own hometown of Bobbio in Piacenza and featuring many members of his own family, there’s something of a home-movie documentary like feel to Sisters (Sorelle Mai, 2010). Over the course of the years however, using the making of each episode as a kind of project for film students, the film develops into something else, the incremental process providing another way to look at the passing of time as a theme and indeed a necessary quality of cinema. Given the piecemeal nature of the film, the focus changes from episode to episode, but if you could sum up the main driver of the film it’s family, but more than that, it’s Bobbio; home. And as such – as another character vocalises in Blood of my Blood a few years later – it’s also the world and how the passing of time brings gradual barely perceptible but significant changes to us all, the Trebbia river that runs through Bobbio washing away the past and clearing the way for the new.

Family, and a realisation of what are the truly important things in life runs through Dormant Beauty (Bella addormentata, 2012), a film that Bellocchio crafts magnificently around the real-life case of Eluana Englaro. A furious debate erupted in Italy in 2009 when the young woman’s father petitioned for her right to die, having spent the previous 17 years in a coma after a car accident. Without intruding too much into the personal circumstances of the case, but at the same time without getting too abstract, academic or impartial, Bellocchio gets to the heart of the relevant issues raised by the case through a number of inter-connected storylines, one of which includes Tony Servillo as a senator being pressurised to vote according to party political lines in parliament. It’s a sensitive and contentious case, but Bellocchio even-handed response to the moral issues the subject raises never resorts to polemic, but focusses instead on the essential underlying characteristic that overrides any philosophical, legal, moral, religious or political position, and that’s love.

“Bobbio is the world”, says one of the characters in Blood of my Blood (Sangue del mio Sangue, 2015), and all the references to Bellocchio’s provincial hometown and all the correspondences made to his earlier films do suggest a rather myopic view of the director’s own personal obsessions. The family connections and money concerns of Sorelle Mai (2010) are in there, the suicide of a twin brother from The Eyes, The Mouth (1982), but divided into two sections that contrast a 17th century case of witch trial with life in the present day, the obvious comparison is Witches Sabbath (1988). The present day section however, featuring a Count who may be a vampire, has some amusing character play and comic absurdity that places an entirely different character on this film. Bellocchio crafts a beautiful meditation about the passing of time and the changes that come with it, showing some distaste for technology and for how the love of money has made us lose sight of true values. Captivated by a young waitress full of life and potential, the old Count recognises that there is hope that the power of love still holds true, but as with the elderly cardinal Federico Mai, the realisation that “nothing else matters” may come too late.

Based on a true story, the approach in Sweet Dreams (Fai bei sogni, 2016) is not typical of Marco Bellocchio, but beneath the surface there are themes and sentiments relating to family that run throughout his films. You would like to expect that the older Bellocchio is very different from the one who had an angry young man push his mother into a ravine in Fists in the Pocket in 1965, and that’s the case here with Massimo, who has struggled all his life with the loss of his mother when he was a young child. The title itself however holds a degree of ambiguity, Massimo wishing for a comforting escape from the reality but only able to grasp onto and find some kind of answers to the inexplicable horrors of the world in a pact with the nightmarish visions of Belphegor and Nosferatu. Despite being notionally more accessible and conventional in the use of flashbacks, Bellocchio nonetheless manages to explore these deeper sentiments and give another multifaceted view on a subject where there are no easy answers. In common with many of Bellocchio’s later films, there are signs of a gradual acceptance and coming to terms with the past, finding a place where dreams never end.

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.


Updated: Jul 01, 2018

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