AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
MARCO BELLOCCHIO'S NEW FILM
by Harlan Kennedy
Exterior, dusk. Shot of
The summer was 1966 and the young man was, yes, this writer. (Physical description wholly accurate. – Ed.) He was in the transport of reseeing, and re-marveling at, a movie that La Tutta Roma was then slavering over.
Bellocchio surely cannibalized the episode of my youthful movie visit for the scene in 1982's Gli occhi, la bocca (The Eyes, the Mouth) where a maturer Lou Castel (re)visits I pugni. He watches himself, a 16-years-younger Lou playing a different character, go through that film's great reverse-Oedipal convulsions. Kill the mother. Venerate (and then kill) the family. Change the face of postwar Italian movie sensibility.
But what's happened since? In those early Roman days, Marco, you looked like a hero: Oedipus Agonistes mirror-written as new movie messiah. You would kill Mamma Italia and her post-war repressions and complacencies. And you would go on to kill the country's filmic fathers, putting aside Luchino, Federico, and Vittorio for a new order of psycho-political verismo. I pugni in tasca (singularized as Fist in the Pocket for the U.S. arthouses) had no lordly aesthetics alla Senso, no high-calorie fantasyrealism alla Dolce vita, none of the itch to sentimentality in De Sica's street epics. Instead the camera stood by, fanatical, dispassionate, scientific, as a rich young epileptic (Castel) ripped apart his family, his mind, his life, and most of us in the audience.
A year later (rerun young-man-goes-to-movies tracking shot), we in
Twenty-five years later I'm watching Bellocchio's new film, La Condanna (The Conviction, '92) and I see why we think of him as having "disappeared" since that infant prodigy start. Stylewise, he was never a tornado. We wanted him to be, urged on by the gale-force subject matter he chose. But Bellocchio's cinema is one of venomed intimism. While his contemporary, Bertolucci, had all the whirling camera-antics to ensure an international career – with increasingly hollow content at the eye of the Storaro-led visual hurricanes – the other B has seemed nailed to the spot by obsessional subject matter.
But there's heroism, too, in this solitude. Fie on orthodox narrative needs and proprieties, says Bellocchio. La Condanna begins as the story of a girl (Claire Nebout) who brings a rape charge against an architect (Vittorio Mezzogiorno) after being trapped with him in a museum after lockup. Then the film merges without warning into another story, about the prosecution attorney (Andrzej Seweryn), his wife (Grazina Szapopolowska), and the sexual-spiritual crisis catalyzed in their lives by the trial's revelations.
It's an extraordinary movie. For much of the time, it barely moves, in between the husbanded bits of eerie-stealthy trackwork. On first view talky and closeup-prone, it could be a TV play ... though at the end we drift into – what? – a weird pastoral Arcadia where a new, unnamed character, a peasant temptress approaching her sell-by date, gambols with the sexually repressed lawyer amid fields of corn and in glades whose floors crackle with sacks of spilled grain. Very seminal.
Last scene of all: the prosecutor, after this bite-size bacchanalia, is walking alongside a bare, weathered-pink wall while the films two earlier females – his wife and the rape plaintiff – surreally swap places as his companion. They talk of sex, identity, passion ....
It takes a repeat viewing before the film begins to reveal, without damaging its air of provocation-by-mystery, the unities that underpin it. La Condanna is about uncontrolled desire and society's desire to control it. It's about the urge to explode sexual stereotypes coexisting with the urge to exploit them – even among "liberated" men and women. Most Bellocchioesque, it's about the Second Birth in each of us. We all begin as detainees under one form of house arrest, as babies in the womb. But after being delivered into the world, we all – or most of us – unknowingly await a second delivery.
What is that moment, that second liberation? Sex in La Condanna is just the outward and visible emblem of it. After the girl, Sandra, and the architect brush into each other in the locked-up museum – he missed the closing of the doors (he says), she ran back into the building after mislaying her apartment keys (she says) – we watch him fuck her four times. Standing, front; standing, rear; staddled, in lying position, her on top; on a bench, him on top. All in what looks like the Titian Orgy Room of the Castello Farnese museum. Red drapes, red-plush seat. Later the two find a bed to abandon themselves on. (This is a well-equipped museum.)
But who seduces/rapes/violates whom? And what "museum" are we talking about? These corridors and chambers look suspiciously like those of the human psyche seen under a microscope: after lockup hour; a womb without a view. The girl is caught inside like a trapped creature – or is she an entrapping one? And the man is part fellow prisoner, part violator, part spiritual midwife.
Earlier, the first artwork we saw Sandra gazing at was a statue of Daphne and Apollo, another pair of lovers testing the boundaries of sexual metamorphosis. And to prefigure the themes of birth and second birth, the painting they meet in front of is a Leonardo "Virgin and Child." She espies fear in the baby's face: "It's as if he were afraid someone could stop him from sucking." He espies fulfillment: "It's Leonardo himself, born and out of danger, where no mother can limit or ruin his creativity."
From the museum we cut so abruptly to a trial in progress that for seconds we're in shock. Wait – this is a courtroom? – and she is bringing charges against him?? But it was more ambiguous than that, we stammer, this dance of forgotten keys, surrendered bodies, and symbolic art objects.
It is. Look, listen. The architect is sitting there ice-cool saying yes, he compelled her to have sex, but it was because she wanted to be compelled. (It transpires that he'd had the keys to the castello all along.) Tsk tsk, says the judge's expression, "rapist's charter" stuff. But now the girl herself is there on the stand. The lights are dimming on her face – is this a trial or a state of mind? – and by her words she is half-prosecuting, half-defending him. "He has a force of personality that drives a woman to sexuality even if she doesn't want it .... He arouses deep realities we all have the right to keep hidden...."
Signor Prosecutor Seweryn must clear this all up and be smart about it. But no, he too is a pool of psychic uncertainty. Early in the trial – we scarcely yet know who he is – we see the lights die on his face as he lolls uneasy in his chair. Cue eyeblink cutaway to another scene: a couple is making love; it is the lawyer and his wife. Back to the trial; back to the lawyer's reverie/back-story. The lawyer's wife bitterly rebukes him for his "violence": his inability to know her needs, to know and create the moment of danger, abandon, ecstasy. True violence, she argues, is insensitivity to the other's feeling, even to the other's unstated desire for violence.
Back in the courtroom, a girl in the visitors' seats throws an adoring bouquet at defendant Mezzogiorno, right in the middle of our prosecutor's main speech. Seweryn's wife, there among the sea of faces, beams with assenting laughter. Why? Because both women recognize that the defendant may be the only man in the courtroom who is uncondemned by his actions: authentic and fearless in his response to his own desires and that of his "victim." How did he know the girl was willing, asks the judge? "Her orgasm;" he replies simply.
This trial, this film, is no longer about sex. It is about freedom and the fears that accompany it. It is about the perilous affirmation of saying yes when the world demands no, or no when the world demands yes. It is about being born or reborn as a human being with freewill, and with a responsiveness to the infinite complexity of others' freewill.
After the trial, the movie spins into a kind of free orbit. Though Mezzogiorno is found guilty, from prison he will become the movie's and Seweryn's remote-control
The party, as well as celebrating the verdict, is in honor of a minor character's birthday. And in the movie's most brilliant single moment – gaspingly funny, unexpected – the girl picks up a birthday cake and throws it straight in Seweryn's face. This is a circus clown éclat, provided as if to announce the movie's Change of Themes. If the first part is all about sex, the second part is about birth, and about the shock therapy human beings need to push themselves from the womb of rule-by-received-ideas into the endangering air of self-determinism.
But this is also the point where Bellocchio falters. It's as if the crossroads at which he finds himself offers too many signposts, too many style options. We begin with a flurry of dotted i's. When the jailed Mezzogiorno lectures the visiting Seweryn on the mystery of women (and how to plumb it), we hear the director-allegorist overexplicate his symbols. "Beauty is acceptable when it's confined, immobile, to museums;" lectures the prof. "But giving it life, movement, is intolerable for society:"
Gotcha. But if that's what the museum scenes are "about;" in impact they're much more potent and mysterious. They transcend both symbolbabble and brute believability. However implausible in theory are the scenes of zipless coitus amid neoclassic culture, in viewing they have an eerie power. The museum setting itself, an after-hours ghost town of Western civilization, casts its spell. Then Bellocchio unnerves us further with Sandra's prowlings through the mapless Gothic corridors, accompanied by the mantric, clackety percussion of her shoes. (This is the best sonic footwear sequence since Tippi Hedren's office break-in in Marnie.)
By contrast, the concluding section of La condanna seems a fantasy born from nowhere, except from a metaphor factory on overtime. From the second of the attorney's two prison tête-à-têtes with Mezzogiorno we cut – on their last spoken word, "illusion" – to a lost-looking Seweryn walking through a studio-built dreamscape. White dripping walls tower over a floor full of milky puddles, and a voluptuous middle-aged woman, part peasant-whore, part Mother Earth, peers down from a stony eminence. We could be in a surreal marble quarry. Woman-as-enigma kneels half-petrified in heraldic immobility under Seweryn's unliberated, unliberating gaze.
Then we're into the countryside for the new images of fecundity, at once mocking and would-be releasing. A combine harvester in a field; peasantfolk tippling wine in a glade; sacks of grain spilled to make a lovemaking carpet for Mother Earth and Mister Lawyer. Will he now learn to be a man? Only his women, walking with him in the last scene of all, along that bare wall somewhere in Antonioni-land, can know. "Equality is nonsense;" they drawl. "You men have the erection and therefore the duty to exercise this power even without consent." Cut camera; roll credits; cue furors.
Since the script was co-written with Bellocchio by writer-psychotherapist Massimo Fagioli (Psychoanalysis of Birth and Human Castration), the mental sound you hear in this last sequence may be that of a shrink tearing remembered pages from his patients' dream notebooks. But the late, brief rush of symbol-knitting should not be allowed to condemn La condanna. It's a startlingly brave film in both structure and subject. The early wedging of the lawyer's story into that of the girl and the architect is a masterstroke. And Bellocchio's use of quasi-theatrical lighting – to dim or irradiate faces at key moments, to dive into the characters' thoughts – turns the courtroom into an Expressionist matrix for multiple memory.
Subjectwise, the movie is even bolder. In an age of postfeminist backlash, we expect card-carrying macho men like David (Oleanna) Mamet and Michael (Disclosure) Crichton to join the front-line. But Bellocchio comes from the Left and from the radical glory days of Sixties Italian cinema: where men were indecisive or self-destructive Hamlets and women were saints, beauties, or ball-breakers. With fresh enemies like this filmmaker, what friends are left for Political Correctness, Feminist Subdivision?
FACTS AND FLASHPOINTS: Marco Bellocchio. Born in
The "ordinary madness of everyday life" – the collectivity of derangement – is Bellocchio's
self-styled subject. It's also the
reason he's not in
No wonder that whenever a Bellocchio film
travels out of
Actually, the international consensus has a point. Some Bellocchio films are esoteric, maddening, blind-alleyish. But he's worse when he takes fright and goes the other way: wooing audiences by fastening on "well-loved" classics – his adaptations of Chekhov's The Seagull ('77) and Pirandello's Henry IV ('84) – or by streamlining and conventionalizing his story structure. Marcia Trionfale (Victory March, '75), with its army-base emotional triangle of Franco Nero, Miou-Miou, and Michele Placido and its overneat workout of themes of voyeurism and authoritarianism, plays like Reflections in a Golden Eye done by that collective therapy group.
Bellocchio is best when he risks being at his worst: when he goes into his own corner and brainstorms and the hell with the ticket-buying herd. Over recent weeks, three sequences from his oeuvre have kept replaying in my head. They're three reasons why, even when Bellocchio's work disappears from distribution, it never disappears from the mind's projection room.
I pugni in tasca: Lou Castel writhing in his last epileptic fit to the music of La Traviata on the gramophone. His cries are almost drowned by the music; the sister (Paola Pitagora) he has planned to murder half – gets up in her bedroom to help – then changes her mind. The scene plays like a grand opera of despair: horror and comic absurdity compete for loudest voice in the ensemble.
Salto nel vuoto: Judge Michel Piccoli runs around the inner circles of his mind, just like the circling corridor of his flat (somewhere in the Dante's Inferno section of Rome), before jumping to his death from a window. Leap of faith is parodied as leap into nothingness. People do the things we expect of them, until that existential flashpoint when they don't, when they "break the circle." By then it may be too late; and we may realize how little what we expected of them or demanded of them had to do with who they really were.
La condanna takes the theme further. Without releasing in ourselves that potential for unexpectedness, for even "violent" self-truth, we live with our falsifying protocol of correctness, adjustment, need-to-please: Bellocchio's slant on Nietzschean bad faith. Lawyer Andrzej Seweryn hurries out of court after his wife, catching up with her in the mocking, sunbright cloisters. "Don't follow me!" she says after they've had a short, bitter quarrel. She moves off He moves back submissively toward the halls of justice. "The bastard!" she half-cries, half-mutters as she walks toward the camera: "He isn't following me!"
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY-AUGUST 1994 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.