DORMANT BEAUTY (Bella addormentata) C
Italy France (115 mi) 2012 ‘Scope d: Marco Bellochio
A grim, depressingly downbeat, and emotionally unsatisfying effort from Bellocchio, who was so distraught that the film didn’t win any awards at the 2012 Venice Film Festival that he announced he would never bring another film to Venice, while Jury member and fellow Italian director Matteo Garrone vowed never to serve on a jury again for an Italian film festival. This is nothing new, as in 2010 under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government, his Italian culture minister Sandro Bondi threatened to take over the festival because the judges (led by Quentin Tarantino) awarded no prizes to Italian films, claiming since the festival is financed by the state he should be able to hand-pick the jury, a move that was quickly rejected by the festival. Ousted by the Berlusconi government in 2002, Alberto Barbera was reinstated as the Festival Director in 2012, where after all the headlines in the national press focusing on Italian films, it must have come as a big surprise to Italian filmmakers who felt they had stacked the deck in favor of their films. It’s extremely disingenuous, however, to inflict nationalistic sentiments at an international film festival, where only 9 French films, by the way, have been awarded the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Festival since 1939, only once in the last 25 years, so that’s actually what makes it such an attractive and world prestigious event. While Bellocchio has been nominated for the Venice Golden Lion three times to go along with six Palme D’Or nominations at Cannes, he’s been shut out from taking the top prize, though he was awarded a lifetime achievement award at Venice in 2011. No Italian film has won the Golden Lion at Venice since 1988, which may not say a lot about Italian films, but it speaks volumes for the credibility of the festival itself. Why prestigious Italian artists are intent on undermining Venice and turning it into a provincial festival makes no sense, so Bellocchio and Garrone, both well known and respected international directors, only look foolish, where they’re apparently buying into the outdated Berlusconi propaganda. For what it’s worth, only one Italian film has been nominated as one of the five finalists in the Academy Award Best Foreign Film category since Roberto Benigni’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL in 1998, so Italian films have not exactly taken the world by storm in the past decade or so as they did in the 50’s and 60’s.
Bellocchio’s last film VINCERE (2009), however, was one of his best, a gorgeously powerful historical drama documenting the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini as seen through the eyes of the mother of his firstborn son, born out of wedlock, so when Mussolini rose to power, both were secretly whisked away and sent to live in asylums throughout Mussolini’s regime, eventually dying in confinement. The film certainly casts a shadow on the moral depravity of Italian leadership through World War II, where the parallel to Berlusconi’s own extensive record of moral hypocrisy and criminal conduct does not go unnoticed. DORMANT BEAUTY attempts to examine another moral issue making headlines in the Italian press, namely what to do with coma patients that show no sign of brain activity, where the argument is whether they are actually dead, kept breathing by life support, or in a state of sleep where they might one day miraculously recover. Much like the 2001 Terri Schiavo case in the United States, right-to-life religious groups, led by the Catholic Church, believed she was still alive, while her own husband wished to remove the life support system after 8-years in a coma but was prevented by government involvement, prolonging the case until exhausting all judicial avenues four years later. Italy had a similar public debate over the Eluana Englaro case in 2009, where after 17-years in a coma from a car accident the father chose to remove his daughter from life support, but the Berlusconi government and the Catholic Church aligned themselves to prevent him from doing it, initiating legal challenges and going public on all the Berlusconi-owned Italian newspapers and extensive TV channels, including three national and several private stations, including RAI, which is one of the producers of the film, in an attempt to convince the public this is paramount to murder. The effect was so extensive that the Friuli Venezia Giulia Film Commission in the Northeast province where this film was shot actually dissolved its own organization hoping to block financing for the film, but they are also listed as one of the production companies.
Without offering any backstory, which in this case necessitates confusion or is playing strictly to an Italian audience, the film, co-written by the director, unfortunately assumes familiarity with the case, where after a decade of court decisions strictly prohibiting any action, in 2009 Eluana’s father is finally given the legal right to remove life support. However, the nuns caring for Eluana since 1994 are seen on television making a public appeal to continue taking care of her, believing she is still alive despite her father’s contention that she was already dead, forcing the father to move her to a private nursing facility, which is where the film begins. Despite the court decision, a right-wing crusade led by Berlusconi and the Vatican, along with a well-financed media campaign, promote the idea that Eluana’s father is murdering his daughter, the view of the Church, further inflamed by Berlusconi’s pronouncement that Eluana is not only alive but capable of bearing a child. While public opinion suggests more than 80% of Italians support the father’s right, a defiantly outraged minority lead organized demonstrations and candlelight vigils in Eluana’s behalf while the government hastily draws legislation that would impose religious standards over the rights of individuals. Bellocchio interweaves several different melodramatic stories, including a conscience-stricken politician, Toni Servillo as Uliano Beffardi, a first term senator elected from Berlusconi’s party, who already faced this dilemma with his own wife, and while he’s adamantly against the proposed legislation, he’s advised by his party to abstain or disappear, but his bigger fear is losing his religious-minded daughter in the process, Alba Rohrwacher as Maria, who joins the angry public demonstrations, meeting someone she likes on the opposite side of the police barricades, Roberto (Michele Riondini), constantly seen attempting to appease the disturbing actions of his violently angry, mentally ill brother. The budding romance between the two quickly gets lost in the constantly shifting dynamic.
In a similar side story that confusingly resembles that of Eluana, where many in the audience may not realize the distinction, Isabelle Huppert, known only as the Divine Mother (as she is called by her son), embodies the position of the church with her own coma-stricken daughter. A famous actress who abruptly quit her career to assume full-time care of her daughter, alienating her husband and son in the process, she devotes her life to religious devotion, complete with an army of nurses and nuns who look after her in a palatial estate, she gathers her family together to celebrate her daughter’s birthday, where it’s impossible not to hear the constant sound of the life support apparatus doing the breathing for her. Despite the constant drone, emotions fly fast and furious, especially the near hysterical rants from her spoiled and overly pampered son who seems to be having an absent mother crisis, while the regal countenance of Huppert displays an aristocratic control over her suppressed emotions through a kind of self-imposed noble rigidity, literally imposing her will over every aspect of her daughter’s immaculate care, though she can be heard muttering to herself the lines of Lady Macbeth, unable to get the stain or smell of blood off her hands. And in yet another storyline, a young doctor (the director’s son, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) gets sucked into the desperate acts of a suicidal drug addict (Maya Sansa) whose beauty betrays her noxious intentions. While the rest of the hospital staff callously take bets on the hour of Eluana’s eventual death, he keeps a watchful vigil over his new patient’s hospital bed, inexplicably drawn to her fierce desire to end her life, telling her, “You’re free to kill yourself, and I’m free to try to stop you.” Straining for dramatic cohesiveness and never developing any sense of emotional impact, the mood remains overly detached and downright gloomy throughout, though one has to chuckle at a somewhat surreal scene that comes out of nowhere, taking place in an ancient candle-lit bath house where Roman senators nakedly congregate before important votes, their heads seen floating on the surface of the water with their eyes glued to the television. Roberto Herlitzka plays a medication dispensing psychiatrist prescribing uppers or downers to depressed politicians. Bellocchio, however, fails to establish any connecting interest between the underdeveloped characters and storylines, especially with the director’s insistence to continually interrupt the proceedings with the disturbing actions of mentally unstable characters, where the suggestion of romantic possibilities, for instance, feels contrived and downright ludicrous, losing focus and interest in a convoluted structure that feels increasingly disconnected. While the experience is frustratingly disappointing, what the film does have going for it (besides Huppert) is a superb soundtrack by Carlo Crivelli in an ultra dramatic, percussive-laden adaptation of Brian Eno and David Bowie David Bowie Abdulmajid (Ryko version) - YouTube (3:30).