Marco Bellochio on Falling In Love with Cinema

Dormant Beauty gives us four different movies in one: a melodrama, a romantic comedy and a political drama

Marco Bellocchio has been making films for over five decades, yet watching each of his projects you would think you’re seeing the work of someone who has just fallen in love with cinema. He approaches each film with the eye of someone for whom everything is new and fresh, which has made him one of those rare masters who don’t necessarily fit into the auteur category, because it’s impossible to pin him down for a specific signature.

Watching Fists in the Pocket, a gritty black and white realist drama, that first put him on the global spotlight, you might have a hard time believing this is the same filmmaker who would go on to do the endlessly compassionate Dormant Beauty, a film that lacks the restlessness of Pocket but replaces it with a sense of humanism that the former seemed to satirize.

Dormant Beauty is about to make its American commercial debut and stars Isabelle Huppert, Toni Servillo, Alba Rohrwacher and other celebrated thespians, who reunite to tell different stories surrounding the real life case of Eluana Englaro, a woman who spent seventeen years in a vegetative coma, and became the center of a heated debate about euthanasia and the right to choose. The film couldn’t be further from the style in which Bellocchio has approached real life stories in recent films like Vincere, which dealt with the secret life of Mussolini’s mistress, or the powerful Good Morning, Night about the kidnapping of Aldo Moro.

During the spring, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, held a complete retrospective of Bellocchio’s work and during his visit to the city we had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about his rich oeuvre and what keeps inspiring him to make films.

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In Fists in the Pocket we have a character who wants to kill his mother, and in Dormant Beauty we have many characters who also want to kill other people. What caught my attention is that in both films, murder is thought of as a political expression. Can you talk about coming full circle with this specific topic?

Effectively, I think you hit the nail on the head, the character of Isabelle Huppert’s son in Dormant Beauty recalls the main character in Fists in the Pocket, but there is a significant difference, in Dormant Beauty the character’s intention to kill his sister who is in a coma is interrupted by the father, while this is something that Lou Castel’s character in Fists in the Pocketdoesn’t do, he ends up killing his mother and brother. But definitely both son figures are connected.

I found it interesting that in Dormant Beauty, like in Vincere, you are giving voices to women who history would’ve otherwise kept silent. Is this something that attracted you to these stories?

There is a difference though, the thing about Dormant Beauty is that Eluana Englaro is a symbol, she is dead, but she becomes a symbol, not so much of women, but of the right to choose between living and dying and in Vincere we are looking at a woman who was murdered by power.

In past years a film like Dormant Beauty would have been condemned like the church, but in a recent conversation with Valeria Golino, whose Honey is also about euthanasia, she revealed how Italian audiences are rarely scandalized nowadays and that the only thing that seems to move them is money, as opposed to provocative subject matters. Is this something you agree with? What things nowadays move audiences or public opinion?

Valeria is right, for example Eluana’s plea created a scandal, a war between both positions, Catholics and the more secular part of the political spectrum, and this war was transmitted on television, so the whole country was talking about it. I think the film, which I made three years after her death, was made so that we could reflect on this story, as opposed to reviving the scandal.

You have often compared yourself to characters in your films which made me wonder if we were supposed to see a version of you in Toni Servillo’s character in the film, especially because of his relationship with his daughter (Alba Rohrwacher), since you mentioned that it was your own daughter who brought Eluana’s story to you in the first place.

Yes, but only partially. Toni’s character doesn’t want to betray his own conscience to a series of political currents, especially because Berlusconi’s cynical political beliefs go against his own conscience. Yes, I do have a daughter but she is far from being the Catholic extremist we see in the film.

Watching Isabelle Huppert’s character’s story in the film I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ingrid Bergman in Europa ‘51 and then when Toni Servillo is in a steam room talking politics with his colleagues, it was like that scene out of 8 1/2 where we see Mastroianni talk to a cardinal in a sauna. Can you talk about the visual influences in your films?

(Laughs and nods) When we make films, past our own experiences we also seem to include references to the films we’ve loved. Images from the books you’ve read, the films you’ve seen and I’m flattered, this is the first time anyone’s ever pointed out a resemblance to Europa ‘51. I think when we look at the character of Isabelle, more than anything she’s hoping for a miracle for her daughter, but she also aspires to achieve sainthood herself in her depths. Yet deep down she is an actress, which makes you believe her extremism is a bit of an act, we even see her reciting some of Macbeth in her sleep.

You have said that films can not be neutral, yet this film, more than any other in your filmography seems to be trying to achieve a compromise between two extreme opposing parties. Was this your intention?

I think that the viewer is free to take from the film what he or she will, in the film we see characters with profoundly different ideas and behaviors: the obsessed mother, the Catholic radical etc. I felt affection for my characters but I don’t necessarily share my ideas, so in this case I don’t think the word compromise is accurate. I don’t want to make grandiose comparisons of myself to the great novelists like Dostoevsky or Dickens but when we look at Crime and Punishment for example, I think what you need to do is look at these characters with sympathy and not with distance.

Looking back at your career, if we took your films and we reorganized them we could have ourselves a very “complete” history of Italy. Was this something you set out to do as a filmmaker?

Not at all. When I set out to do a film, I fall in love with a specific point, a scene, an image. My starting point is always very concrete, the idea of telling a socially important story isn’t important to me, I want to tell stories about interesting characters and situations. My desire to tell a social reality is secondary. Since I’ve been doing films for 50 years, yes at some point we can look back and identify important moments in Italian history and this is not something that I deliberately set out to do.

Dormant Beauty gives us four different movies in one, a melodrama, a romantic comedy and a political drama among others. How do you balance the tone to deliver a uniform film?

First of all in the editing room we respected the script but we also destructured it. In a film like this I think it’s important to start off on a broad opening and then circle in a specific point. Of course the way you shoot a scene changes depending on where it’s shot, but in the editing room we worked on created progressive suspense, not in a vulgar sense but in order to keep the audience’s attention.

In films like Vincere you created your own documentary-like footage, while in Good Morning, Night and Dormant Beauty you use actual real life footage. Can you talk about this dichotomy between preserving history through film and TV and then using these elements to tell your own stories?

In Vincere for example it came out of necessity, we didn’t have the resources to recreate World War II, so we decided to use projections that then also fit with the characters, ending up with footage that looked like a documentary. In Dormant Beauty TV gave us images of Italy, but the story is what we see in the characters. I never wanted to recreate the story of Eluana as a TV movie of the week, going into her hospital room and showing her, I preferred to show Italy on television fighting over her.

Reading about your work, the adjective “operatic” often comes up and in Dormant Beauty you seem to use music in a very particular way to tell a story. Can you talk about the effect of music in your films?

I think that yes, opera — I directed an opera — but it’s also a very important form of Italian culture, deeply rooted in my own cultural upbringing. For years I derided it, satirized it and thought it was ridiculous. Then I realized that opera is melodrama, not in the American genre way, but drama set to music and it became an important part of films like Vincere for example, which we called a “futurist melodrama”, even though the futurists derided opera too.

In Fists in the Pocket for example, the main character dies to “La Traviata” in a dimension that is tragic, not ridiculous. In China is Near a character sings from “Don Carlo” in the bathtub which is hilarious, but in my most recent films I think I’ve concentrated more on the serious aspects.

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Dormant Beauty is now playing.