Where to begin with Marco Bellocchio

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: Italian New Wave veteran Marco Bellocchio

• Explore the Marco Bellocchio season at BFI Southbank

Pasquale Iannone

Vincere (2009)

Vincere (2009)

Why this might not seem so easy

A contemporary of fellow 1960s Italian filmmaking iconoclast Bernardo Bertolucci, Marco Bellocchio’s career has attracted nowhere near the kind of sustained international interest as the director of The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris. Bellocchio has certainly been no less vital, no less probing in his critique of societal mores over the years. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more coruscating attack on the institution of the family than his sledgehammer of a debut Fists in the Pocket (1965).

Like Bertolucci, Bellocchio hails from the northern Italian region of Emilia Romagna. While Bertolucci was largely self-taught, Bellocchio studied at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. Initially, he wanted to be an actor, but he soon realised that his talents were best suited to directing. “From my early experiences in performing, I’ve retained my passion for actors,” Bellocchio told Aldo Tassone in a 1979 interview. “I think I understand them fairly well […] The actor should ‘live’ the character. I don’t expect them to ‘be’ the character, but I want them to go close.”

From Fists in the Pocket to 2016’s Sweet Dreams, Bellocchio’s six-decade-long career as director has seen him take on a variety of styles and registers, and while this has made him difficult to categorise, he has revelled in this eclecticism – this formal and thematic ‘zig-zagging’. “I didn’t want to be confined to the role of a filmmaker who makes a film a year, who has his own particular genre, and who is acclaimed and lavished with prizes,” the director noted in a 1977 Sandro Bernardi interview.

While this is certainly true, there are a handful of themes and motifs that resurface in seemingly disparate works – troubled and dysfunctional families and the brutality and dehumanisation of major institutions, to name just two.

The best place to start – Fists in the Pocket

One of the most explosive debuts in 1960s cinema, Fists in the Pocket is the story of a young man’s violent rebellion. Based loosely on Bellocchio’s own upbringing, and shot largely in interiors, it sees frustrated son Alessandro (Lou Castel) plotting to dispatch members of his family, most of whom suffer from crippling ill health. The film was said to have anticipated the tumultuous societal upheaval of 1968. Bellocchio had actually intended to broaden its scope to include portraits of Alessandro’s politically-engaged friends but decided to concentrate on the family unit.

Fists in the Pocket (1965)

Fists in the Pocket (1965)

Composed at a time when he was gaining international recognition for his twanging, galloping spaghetti western scores, composer Ennio Morricone’s unnervingly glacial main theme would not seem out of place in a horror film.

What to watch next

The 1978 kidnapping of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro by left-wing extremists the Red Brigades remains one of the most infamous events in 20th-century Italian history and has been the subject of countless books and several films. Made some 25 years after the kidnapping and adapted from Anna Laura Braghetti and Paola Tavella’s novel The Prisoner, Good Morning, Night (2003) is very much in keeping with the innovative approach to real-life figures and historical events elsewhere in Bellocchio’s filmography. 2009’s Vincere, for instance, tells of Benito Mussolini’s first wife Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and her relationship with the future fascist leader (Filippo Timi).

Good Morning, Night (2003)

Good Morning, Night (2003)

Like Fists in the Pocket, most of Good Morning, Night unfolds in interiors; this time it’s the Rome apartment where a small group of kidnappers are holding Moro hostage. Much like the earlier film, it centres around one character and their feelings of unease at those around them. However, in contrast to the ill-contained rage of Fists in the Pocket’s Alessandro, the young female brigadista Chiara (Maya Sansa) finds herself questioning the methods of her co-conspirators. Earlier this year, it was announced that Bellocchio was working on another project chronicling the Moro kidnapping, a six-hour TV series titled Exterior, Night.

Throughout his career, Bellocchio has adapted works by authors such as Anton Chekhov (The Seagull), Heinrich von Kleist (The Prince of Homburg) and Raymond Radiguet (Devil in the Flesh), but he has been continually drawn to the work of Sicilian playwright and novelist Luigi Pirandello. In 1984’s Henry IV, the director reunited Italian acting royalty Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale in a cinematic reworking of Pirandello’s 1921 play. It’s the tale of a nobleman (Mastroianni) who, after suffering a fall, decides to live as a medieval king.

Henry IV (1984)

Henry IV (1984)

“Henry IV pretends, he is an actor,” Bellocchio wrote in a 2017 Corriere della Sera piece on his Pirandello adaptations. “It was a subject that was close to my heart because I wanted to be an actor when I was a young. Plus, like Pirandello’s character I have often felt the dilemma – do I want to be sheltered from the outside world or attack life head-on?”

Where not to start

Slap the Monster on Page One (1972)

Slap the Monster on Page One (1972)

Political thrillers in the mould of Elio Petri, Damiano Damiani or Francesco Maselli are not Bellocchio’s forte – something that the director himself has admitted. Slap the Monster on Page One (1972) was written by Sergio Leone’s long-time collaborator Sergio Donati and was intended to be the latter’s directorial debut, but Donati fell ill and was unable to complete work on the project. Producer Ugo Tucci turned to Bellocchio, whose previous film In the Name of the Father (1971) – a depiction of a revolt in a Catholic boarding school in the late 1950s – had made a strong impression.

Slap the Monster on Page One stars Gian Maria Volontè as Bizanti, the editor of a right-wing newspaper whose influence extends into a murder investigation and political elections. Like many political thrillers of the time, Bellocchio’s film draws on a series of harrowing real-life events, including the 1971 kidnap and murder of Milena Sutter, the 13-year-old daughter of a Swiss industrialist. Although the picture retains its relevance to this day, and is certainly worthy of comparison with better known titles such as Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion (1970), Bellocchio felt that it was one of his least personal works.

“You shouldn’t make films as a challenge,” he told Tassone. “You should try to make films that allow you to understand certain things. Instead, in this case, to justify the operation, it was completely changed. Politics was introduced – interesting stuff, but it wasn’t for me. There are American directors who can make two pictures at the same time, but not in my case.”

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