Eluana Englaro is Italy’s analogue to Terri Schiavo: a woman in a vegetative state for well over a decade whose fate became a cause célèbre when the decision was made to remove her from life support. Director Marco Bellocchio resuscitates the Englaro case in Dormant Beauty, returning to a few vital days in 2009 as things came to a head and the story riveted the nation. With a grand sweep and bursts of operatic emotion, the film uses the explosive controversy to express the troubling condition of contemporary Italy.
Instead of focusing on Eluana Englaro or portraying those closest to her, Bellocchio, who also co-wrote the script, chooses to follow several sets of fictional lovers and families in separate storylines that in some way mirror or comment on the Englaro case. The plots intersect only tangentially, but each develops a variation on a similar set of themes: human connection, the sacrifices people make for those they love, and what it means to be both dead and alive.
Looming over it all is the cacophony of an unrelenting media backdrop: a histrionic chorus of television news, Catholic outcry, and the rising political firestorm that reaches to the highest levels of government. Prime Minister Berlusconi—like President Bush in the Schiavo case—sought to manipulate the situation for political gain, and took to grandstanding and a last-minute legislative push to halt the end of life decision.
Closely following the Eluana story as it unfolds on television is a renowned film star (Isabelle Huppert, credited as “Divine Mother”) who’s put her career on hold since her daughter Rosa (an angelic, inert Carlotta Cimador) fell into a vegetative state of her own. The retired actress’s theatrical instincts are repurposed to grand effect in her latest role as grieving mother. Consumed by maternal anguish and stuck in an endless cycle of obsessive rituals—attending mass, keeping bedside vigil, willfully striding with her obedient nunnish attendants in tow—she need only enter a room and tensions rise.
Huppert’s matriarch is an imperious, stop-at-nothing diva who shrivels anyone standing in her path with a withering glance. She emasculates her supportive husband, beguiles a well-meaning priest, and starves her healthy son of the validation he craves. Despite the prickly exterior, Huppert instills a vein of tenderness within, a self-awareness that registers as inner torment at the cruelty her suffering is causing others—and herself. There’s a sense that the mother does care for her son, she isn’t as devout as her outward piety suggests, and she craves to have her old life back—she just can’t escape this trap of her own making.
Family relations—in particular the strained mother-son dynamic—are central in much of Bellocchio’s oeuvre. The director often juxtaposes this with the tensions arising between secularism and Catholicism, a layered struggle at the core of films such as his elegiac My Mother’s Smile (2002). Here, that interplay is further complicated by the intrusion of politics.
Developments in the Englaro case thrust mild-mannered Senator Uliano Beffardi (Toni Servillo) into an existential dilemma, as he confronts the conflict between his personal beliefs and pressure to toe the party line. Servillo wears a glum mask of weary suffering as the ever-put-upon Beffardi. The deep creases in his face testify to inner damage from years of tangling with heavy moral burdens. As Beffardi engages in subtle dialectics with fellow party members, Servillo’s controlled cadence balances knowing resignation with a sincere search for a dignified way out. He imbues Beffardi with the gravitas of a classic tragic hero, a sense reinforced during a bathhouse scene with conspiring senators that evokes the Golden Age of Rome (and Hollywood). The scene—shot with high-contrast lighting, shadows, facial silhouettes, and enveloping steam, in the kind of stark compositions Bellocchio often favors—features an aged psychiatrist-politician (Roberto Herlitzka) who freely dispenses pills and advice to his fellow senators, summoning otherworldly wisdom with netherworld affect.
Nothing’s easy for the pensive Beffardi, who as a single father also struggles to maintain good relations with his cellphone-screening daughter Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), a passionate young protester aligned with the pro-life forces of church and state. Though Maria may indulge in the grown-up political games her father plays, she still dwells within her clique of schoolgirl friends. Her commitment to her cause is tested when she falls for scruffily handsome Roberto (Michele Riondino), an activist from the other side of the protest line. Maria’s doubts and worries run across Rohrwacher’s face in little tics and flashes, her eyes peering intently or demurely averted. A shot of her hesitation in a hotel foyer conveys Maria’s fragile but sure self-possession. She’s young and naïve, but her emotional delicacy is tempered by currents of resilience.
As with his portrait of Mussolini’s first wife in Vincere (09), Bellocchio mines political quarries primarily for insights into how public events shape and reflect private lives. Dramatic pressures build in scenes of bourgeoisie life until the pent-up emotions are released in outbursts. While Bellocchio pulled this off with restless verve in his 1965 debut feature Fists in the Pocket, and unleashed the feverish anguish of a woman wronged to devastating impact in Vincere, with Dormant Beauty, the high-strung emotions shade into the heavy-handed.
Bellocchio aims to reveal the subtle ways historic social events weave into intimate personal dramas. His parallel storylines in Dormant Beauty, however, tend to fray the emotional core he has so ably controlled in past films. Despite the awkward narrative structure, the choppy film serves as a welcome showcase for ably understated performances from veteran Servillo, rising talent Rohrwacher, and a coolly burning Huppert.