From his darkly funny 1965 debut Fists in the Pocket to his recent excavations of 20th-century Italian history (Good Morning, Night, 03; Vincere, 09), Marco Bellocchio has spent his nearly 50-year career questioning prevailing ideologies, struggling with intractable moral problems, and working to make sense of his heroes’ tangled motives. He is a searching, curious filmmaker, quick to confront the conflict between the Church and the radical Left and unwilling to align himself with either, drawing stylistically in equal measure from religious iconography and Hollywood melodramas.

Bellocchio’s latest film Dormant Beauty consists of four interwoven stories—each centering on some difficult choice or crisis of conscience, and building to a moment of either disappointment or grace. A young man finds himself torn between fraternal duty and love; a former actress takes the veil in the hope of effecting a miracle; an aging senator wavers between his conscience and his career; a doctor develops feelings for his suicidal patient. Taken together, the stories compose a rich, humane glimpse of modern Italian life, and a fascinating investigation into the limits and scope of morality in a secular world. FILM COMMENT spoke with the director about his relationship with the Church, his changing attitudes towards matricide, and his position (or lack thereof) on what it means to be free. 

My Mother's Smile Bellocchio

My Mother's Smile

Many of the character types that appear in your first feature, Fists in the Pocket, recur in some of your more recent films, like My Mother’s Smile or Dormant Beauty: saintly mothers, worldly, conflicted brothers, mentally unstable sons who commit acts of violence against their families. What keeps drawing you back to these specific characters? How has your attitude towards them changed over the years?

This is a question that would require an entire book to be answered. Your question summarizes all of my biography. I will mention a few things; of course, it cannot be everything. Starting with Fists in the Pocket, to name but a few, we can go to China Is Near [67], where there are some very straightforward similarities—for example, the terrorist Maoist brother. I did a later film based on Chekhov’s The Seagull [Il Gabbiano, 77]; there, it was a family with an obsessive mother and a furious, unhappy son who is very similar to the protagonist in Fists in the Pocket. In A Leap in the Dark [80], two brothers who live alone, and in their dreams see different scenes from their family lives. There are themes in those dream sequences that were already present in Fists in the Pocket. Then The Eyes, the Mouth [82] is the tragic story of a family where one of the brothers has committed suicide. It’s about the relationship between the surviving twin and their mother, and this surviving twin is played by the same actor, Lou Castel, who was the protagonist in Fists in the Pocket. In My Mother’s Smile [02], the protagonist goes back home, where the process for the beatification of his mother is underway, and he goes to visit his brother in a mental asylum—the same brother who murdered the mother.

These are pretty straightforward, direct connections that I’ve just mentioned, but in other films that I have not mentioned, there are still other issues that take you back to my first film in subtler and less straightforward ways. This is my life; this is who I am. All of us live based on our own personal history, on our own life experiences, which then pop up and re-emerge in the images that we see.

In My Mother’s Smile, I identify with Sergio Castellitto’s character, this problematic painter who wants to separate himself from his difficult family. Castellitto’s character did manage to cut those ties from this family that he sees, at some level, as ill. He looks with detachment, even though also with affection, to the brother who killed the mother. He sees him as a failure, someone who was punished by life. All this to say that throughout the years, my imagination keeps going back to the same themes, but with a very different outlook, a very different perspective. The stories do come back, but my way of looking at these stories has radically shifted. While in Fists in the Pocket I morally share or support the choice of the protagonist to kill the mother—not in a criminal way, but in a philosophical way—in My Mother’s Smile I am on the side of the character who rejects the murder. That’s a very different perspective.

Dormant Beauty

Dormant Beauty

Especially in the films you’ve made in the past decade or so, you keep returning to characters who are attached to the Church in some way, including some who are devout believers. And even though these films are often very critical of the Church as an institution, they tend to be relatively respectful and empathetic towards the believers themselves. How have you maintained that balance? Does one tendency ever end up overshadowing the other?

In a lot of Catholics, there is a conformist component, a blind connection to the institution that is often used as a tool. But at the same time, you meet some Catholics who genuinely believe in good faith. I am opposed the first kind of Catholics, those I see as hypocrites: people who use the church and pretend to believe in order to gain more power. But in terms of those who devote their lives to solidarity, to helping the poor—their attitude is not something that I share, but I respect it, and I’m even moved by it.

In Dormant Beauty, the character of the actress decides to sacrifice her vocation, her art—her identity, one could say—because she thinks, or she hopes, that by going back and finding again a faith that is almost a type of saintly faith, a heroic faith, then she could hope in a miracle. Because only a believer thinks that they can ask God for a miracle, and that God can grant that. When I see that kind of attitude, which I used to see as a form of despair, I don’t have admiration for it, but I definitely do have respect.

In terms of the Catholic imagery [in my films], you have to remember that I grew up in a Catholic world. That was part of my education, of what was around me as I was growing up. So in terms of images or ideas, even though I have separated from the Church and I’m not a believer myself, my imagery is drenched with it. They stayed with me. Several people even saw in my images, in my films, direct references to passages in the Gospels. For example, some people have brought up the idea that when the boy dries the girl’s face [in Dormant Beauty] that’s the image of the sacra sindone, the cloth on which the image of Christ’s face is printed. The other scene that someone mentioned is the one where the drug addict removes the shoes from the doctor. A Jesuit film critic, who writes for a Jesuit publication in Italy, saw [an echo of] Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus’s feet. Even though now I’m not a Catholic, because of all that deeply rooted Catholic education, there are traces that pop up.

Dormant Beauty

Even though your films come from a perspective outside the Catholic tradition, they still have a real moral structure to them. Watching Dormant Beauty, I was trying to figure out exactly what that structure was, and it seemed to me that many of the film’s characters act out of a sense of duty: the senator’s duty to his own conscience, the older brother’s duty to the younger, the doctor’s duty to his patient. Do you think that’s a fair characterization?

This sense of duty, or a sense of being loyal to one’s conscience, is a component of the individual stories, but for me, there are other components that are equally important. For instance, in the end, the relationship between the daughter and the senator comes together thanks to an intuition based on love. The senator does what he believes is right and follows his conscience, but the daughter, thanks to a love experience that she has (which, incidentally, does not even end well) manages to have an intuition about the love that the father felt for her mother, and for her.

Duty in an almost negative sense, or at least in a highly ambiguous sense, enters to a greater extent in the relationship between the two brothers. The older brother, out of a sense of duty, doesn’t feel he’s free to love—mistakenly so, because if he did recognize that he has this freedom, if he did follow this emotion, he would do something that would probably end up being vital and precious also for the younger brother. I personally don’t believe that assisting somebody is the right way to heal them, or even to help them.

In the third example you mentioned, the doctor-patient relationship, there is of course an element of professional duty. As a physician, the doctor has the duty to prevent the woman from killing herself, because she has all the resources to turn her life around. But the relationship is warmed up, or lit up, by an unplanned event: the attraction the doctor develops towards her, a noble kind of attraction. This creates a deeper relationship that becomes intertwined with the sense of duty. Duty is a strong component, but it’s just a component. What brings the relationship to a resolution is something else, something higher—which we could call love, even though love is a world that’s so inflated.

Dormant Beauty

Each character in Dormant Beauty treats freedom as a vitally important thing, but each also seems to understand freedom differently. For some, freedom is simply the absence of external constraints, the ability to do what they want. For others, freedom is something more positive. It means arriving at some end, some ideal state of freedom. The film, I think, is very careful not to take sides between the two positions, but I was wondering which one you personally would align yourself with.

I think my answer to some extent includes your question. I don’t have some preconceived ideas of what freedom is; I don’t have my own philosophical idea of freedom. However, this film was made with great freedom. It’s not an ideological film. I’m not out there to denounce or support anything. But I did it three years after the true story of Eluana Englaro took place, and it expresses a need I felt not to be too conditioned by current events, by the pressure to state certain beliefs and make statements about moral principles. This freedom that I took to tell the story using the point of view of people whose views I don’t share is part of who I am. For me, it’s enriching to have the freedom to tell a story that does not express only my own point of view. It’s a great bonus to be able to put myself in the shoes of people whose points of view are unlike mine.