The nonconformist: Marco Bellocchio and his protest cinema

In a career steeped in Italian history, and spanning more than half a century, the director’s by turns defiantly and slyly anti-authoritarian films have been marked by a mordant sense of authority’s enduring appeal. As a season of his work begins at BFI Southbank, we take a closer look.

Henry K Miller

from our July 2018 issue

Fists in the Pocket (1965)

Fists in the Pocket (1965)

Jean Renoir’s dictum that “everyone really only makes one film in his life” ought not to apply to directors as shaped by Marxism as Marco Bellocchio. As the world has changed over the more than 50 years of his career so far, so should have the films. The themes of a late-career peak like Dormant Beauty (2012) – the performance of normality; the toll taken on those who can’t or won’t achieve it, and the bad faith of those who do – are all there in his first two films Fists in the Pocket (1965) and China Is Near (1967). But this remarkable consistency is itself a critique of a culture in stasis. For a time those first two films seemed to have presaged the decade of revolutionary high hopes that followed 1968; in a longer perspective – one which Bellocchio’s often self-referential oeuvre provides – they foretold its bitter end.

Produced outside the industry, with his brother’s money, and in his mother’s house, Fists in the Pocket – a story of fratricide, matricide, madness and incest in provincial Emilia-Romagna – was hailed by the critic Kenneth Tynan as the most impressive debut since Jean-Luc Godard’s. Indelibly played by Lou Castel, Bellocchio’s antihero Alessandro seeks to kill himself and the rest of his ailing family – even his beloved sister Giulia (Paola Pitagora) – so that his better adjusted elder brother Augusto might escape their grasp, marry his fiancée and prosper in the new Italy of the economic miracle.

Fists still shocks, but it was especially controversial in 1960s Italy, where the Christian Democrats, the dominant party between 1948 and the early 1990s, stood for the primacy of the family above all other loyalties. As Pauline Kael noticed on the film’s arrival in New York, “the material is wild, the direction cool and assured”, but Bellocchio’s ironic distance from a manifestly personal subject makes the film all the more richly disturbing.

He wrote it in London, where he had come in 1963, that autumn joining the Slade School of Fine Art’s new film department, led by the veteran director Thorold Dickinson. Bellocchio had graduated from the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the most prestigious film school in Western Europe, and might otherwise have taken the conventional apprenticeship route to the director’s chair. Instead he chose quite self-consciously to leave Italy to prepare his debut.

One’s first film, he wrote in his application, is a summary “of a life still free from the tyranny of art”; but “only by forgetting the nostalgia of a lost childhood can one find, at the appropriate moment, the universal terms in which to describe it without any subjectivity… in England I can think about my life in Italy.” He proposed to write a thesis comparing acting styles in Michelangelo Antonioni and Robert Bresson, though what survives of the result, recently discovered by Slade archivist Liz Bruchet, is far from being a dry academic exercise.

The UK quad poster for Fists in the Pocket (1965)

The UK quad poster for Fists in the Pocket (1965)

Instead, it is a fascinatingly involved study of Antonioni the man as much as the auteur, with elements of selfportrait and self-projection. Having cited an article from the Italian film magazine Bianco e nero from the time of Il grido (1957) on Antonioni’s “closed, proud, miserable” provincialism, Bellocchio writes that with L’avventura (1960), Antonioni “goes outside his province, his moralising, his frustrations [and] becomes part of the world, integrates himself, makes intimately his own the experience of others”.

In other words, Antonioni had finally brought off, with his sixth feature, what Bellocchio wanted to do with his first. Through a close reading of Antonioni’s interviews – his words and his gestures – Bellocchio identifies the process he himself sought to undergo: the cinematographic rendering of “an autobiography made up not of past experiences, but of the rhythms, the tempos, the electrocardiograms of his life”.

Bellocchio’s obvious admiration for Antonioni’s ability to “classify his emotivity and set it into motion” is, however, tempered by suspicion of its obverse, what he calls Antonioni’s “absorbent condition”, his “desire to remain in suspension, to preserve an absolute disponibility [openness] towards words and things”. For leftwing critics such as Goffredo Fofi, with whom Bellocchio would later collaborate, the Antonioni of La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962) represented the “ideology of ‘the end of ideology’” – exquisitely melancholy, but finally too “disponible” towards the coming technocratic society.

Bellocchio’s second film, though as cool as his first, would be no such thing. China Is Near (1967) is a merciless political satire in which an aristocratic professor, again in Emilia-Romagna, is prevailed upon to stand as a Socialist candidate in a local election – the Socialists having been in coalition with the Christian Democrats, under the premiership of Aldo Moro, since 1963.

In one scene the professor explains to his Maoist younger brother: “I might not believe in what I’m doing, but I continue doing it; therefore I believe it.” After the Maoists plant a bomb in the Socialists’ office, he scolds him for not instead bombing the Communists, “the official opposition that doesn’t feel like opposing any more”. When China Is Near was unveiled at Venice, where it won a joint prize with Godard’s La Chinoise (1967), Bellocchio told Sight & Sound that he sympathised with the Maoists – something by no means evident from the film – but that “they don’t represent any political force or alternative to the official leftwing parties”.

La Cina e Vicina (1967)

La Cina e Vicina (1967)

The wave of student protests and occupations which culminated in Paris in May 1968 began in Italy only a couple of months after Venice, in November 1967. One of the first universities to erupt was Bellocchio’s alma mater, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, a notable nursery of Christian Democrat politicians; part of the protesters’ critique was that the centrality of the family in Italian politics precluded collective action. There was now no question of remaining in suspension. Bellocchio was instantly swept up by events, and took part in university occupations in Turin and Rome.

In the summer of 1968, with Elda Tattoli, lead actress and co-writer of China Is Near, he filmed a contribution to the anthology film Love and Anger (1969), himself playing – deliberately sarcastically – a reformist lecturer whose class is overrun by Maoist students, who then quote books at one another, including the little red one: “We do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war.” Shortly afterwards, Bellocchio collaborated in the making of two agit-prop films for the Unione dei Comunisti Italiani (M-L), one of the many groupuscules which emerged to the left of the official Communists in these years.

As Paul Ginsborg writes in his A History of Contemporary Italy, “the Italian protest movement was the most profound and long-lasting in Europe”, spreading from the universities into the factories and beyond. Bellocchio’s films from the 1970s, after his return to commercial production, are attacks on institutions, sometimes allegorical, sometimes direct: the church, represented by a decrepit Jesuit boarding school in the quasi-autobiographical In the Name of the Father (1971), set in the late 1950s; the rightwing press in Slap the Monster on Page One (1972); psychiatric hospitals in the collectively made documentary Fit to be Untied (1975); the military in Victory March (1976), inspired by Bellocchio’s unhappy period of national service in between making his first two films; the cinema itself in the television documentary La macchina cinema (1978), from the same collective as Fit to be Untied.

In the Name of the Father (1972)

In the Name of the Father (1972)

None of these are optimistic. A common theme is the allure of power, even among its victims. In the Name of the Father is in part a reflexive parable about the limits of political cinema, in which one of the boys devises a play intended “to ridicule, with farcical overtones, the hypocrisy of our religious institutions”, hoping that the audience will “erupt into a liberating laugh”; the priests instead are canny enough to applaud. His more clear-sighted friend Angelo (Yves Beneyton), when he eventually leads the students in revolt, offers only an accommodation with technocracy; and whereas the priests condescend to the boys – pliant, mediocre children of the bourgeoisie – Angelo holds them in contempt. The most dynamic character in Slap the Monster, a cynical editor played by Gian Maria Volontè, would rather embrace the role the system has allotted him than delude himself that he can change it, on the grounds that “it’s better to write consciously for a shitty newspaper than expect to save your soul by biting the hand that feeds you”.

The end of the post-1968 period was registered in two films, A Leap in the Dark (aka Leap into the Void, 1980) and The Eyes, The Mouth (1982), in which Bellocchio again “integrates himself”, goes beyond autobiography even while referring directly to his own life and work. In the latter, written with Catherine Breillat, the star of Fists in the Pocket – played by Lou Castel, but not strictly “as himself” – returns from Rome to Emilia-Romagna after the suicide of his twin brother. Himself accused by his uncle (Michel Piccoli) of overacting his own grief, he tells his brother’s faithless fiancée (Angela Molina), who refuses to simulate the same emotion, that his brother wanted to marry her only “because he had no ideas” other than to conform. But while still at odds with his conservative family, he finds scant solace in his career as a rebel for hire, telling her: “I’ve become almost a caricature… The years have gone by and nothing has changed.”

Bellocchio’s reckoning with the public dimension of the aftermath of 1968 came two decades later, in Good Morning, Night (2003), a dramatisation of the abduction and murder of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades, in the spring of 1978, on the advent of the Communists’ ‘Historic Compromise’ with the Christian Democrats. For most of the intervening period, Bellocchio’s films had fallen under the influence of the renegade psychoanalyst Massimo Fagioli, eventually his screenwriter, and were largely disengaged from political questions. The positive legacy of their collaboration is a distinctive freedom with flashbacks and fantasy, which has carried over into the current phase in Bellocchio’s career, beginning with The Nanny (1999). An adaptation of a Pirandello short story, set around 1900, in which a doctor hires the illiterate wife of an imprisoned revolutionary as a wet-nurse for his children, The Nanny is a return to Bellocchio’s most enduring theme – bad faith. “You express yourself with love,” the doctor tells her at one point. “You don’t need to learn how to write.”

Good Morning, Night (2003)

Good Morning, Night (2003)

The Nanny marked the screen debut of Maya Sansa, in the title role, as well as Bellocchio’s first collaboration with Daniela Ceselli as screenwriter; both returned for Good Morning, Night. Told from the limited perspective of one of Moro’s captors, who begins to lose her faith as negotiations for his release drag on, the film’s conceit is that the terrorist cell, for all its vaunted rejection of convention, is a family, isolated from society no less than the family in Fists in the Pocket, and with all the role-play that entails. The role the terrorists proclaim for themselves, despite their isolation, is that of the proletariat, making Moro less a person than the personification of the idea of Christian Democracy; but more deeply ingrained identifications supervene. In one of the film’s comic scenes, Sansa’s character returns to her actual family for a memorial service, and sees the older generation – now members of the prosperous middle class – singing communist battle anthems of the resistance years, believing themselves still to be adherents of the ideals which she and her comrades believe themselves to be putting into practice.

Bellocchio returned to Italian history from a woman’s perspective in Vincere (2009), also written with Ceselli, in which Mussolini’s rise is seen from the point of view of his lover Ida Dalser, who was disavowed and institutionalised, together with their illegitimate son, as soon as Mussolini came within sight of power. The film begins with the future dictator – socialist, republican, anti-clerical – breaking ranks with his comrades and endorsing Italy’s entry into the Great War with words that anticipate (or echo) Mao’s: “This war will kill all wars.” Ida, played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno, keeps faith with Il Duce because, as his first supporter, she helped make him what she believes he has become; but while she rejects a sympathetic doctor’s advice that “this is the time to be quiet, to be actors”, in order to improve her lot, Mussolini himself, replaced within the film by newsreel footage, becomes the ultimate historical actor, abandoning his principles so comprehensively that he even signs an accord with the Pope.

Vincere (2009)

Vincere (2009)

By apparent contrast, Dormant Beauty, Bellocchio’s next major production, was set almost in the present – February 2009 – but the continuities, though inexact, are inescapable. Toni Servillo plays an ex-Socialist turned Forza Italia senator who is leaned on to vote for Berlusconi’s cynical anti-euthanasia law, against his vestigial conscience; Isabelle Huppert, meanwhile, is an imperious actress whose greatest role will be that of a devout, self-sacrificing mother to a daughter on life support. When she tells a priest, in tears, “I don’t have faith, I act, I’m always acting, even now,” he is unfazed; who isn’t? A psychiatrist remarks of the politicians he treats: “If TV doesn’t call them, that’s the tragedy… In front of the cameras, you’re a character actor, not a walk-on.” Like the younger brother in China Is Near making sure his reflection matches the look of a Maoist poster, like Lou Castel going to see his younger self on screen, like the terrorists raptly watching the consequences of their actions play out on the news, the characters of Dormant Beauty inhabit a hall of mirrors.

There is another kind of consistency to Bellocchio’s career. His films have almost invariably premiered at Cannes or Venice, the earliest of them belonging to a time now mythologised by the former. Most have subsequently come to the London Film Festival – but few have come much further. More than a decade separates the British release of his debut, in 1966, from that of the next of his films to win a release here, In the Name of the Father, in 1977. The 15 years since Good Morning, Night have seen a revival, but even then Dormant Beauty was never picked up.

This may be accounted for by a second kind of consistency – Bellocchio’s films are thoroughly Italian. The inevitable comparison is with his near contemporary Bernardo Bertolucci, another son of Emilia-Romagna, whose Before the Revolution (1964) belongs to the same moment as Fists in the Pocket, but whose films have long been international in scope, and have always had more to do with the nouvelle vague and with Hollywood.

In fact, at 78, Bellocchio is embarking on his most ambitious production to date, based on the life of Mafia supergrass Tommaso Buscetta, with locations on three continents. But none have had the leaven of Anglo-American stars, and they often, as with Dormant Beauty, demand some acquaintance with Italian culture and politics, and so with Catholicism – not infrequently an awkward aspect of outwardly post-religious Britain’s relationship with European film culture. The irony here is that, as Bellocchio’s films have indicated, whether in the cool 1960s, the hot 70s, or in his mellower current incarnation, the hour of religion, no matter our pretensions to the contrary, has not yet passed.

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