Monday, April 21, 2014

Marco Bellocchio Retrospective @ MOMA

Marco Bellocchio: A Retrospective
April 16–May 7, 2014
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street, New York, NY

Italian director Marco Bellocchio, now 74, has been making highly charged dramas that take the social, moral and political pulse of his native country for nearly 50 years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Although Bellocchio remains highly respected on the international festival circuit—three of his recent films were shown at the New York Film Festival in 2002, 2003 and 2009—he has fallen prey to that strangely mysterious disease that seems to afflict veteran directors considered past their prime in that it’s no longer a given that his films will distributed or released on DVD and Blu-ray.

Luckily for us, some of Bellocchio’s most trenchant films are screening at the Museum of Modern Art through May 6. Although Marco Bellocchio: A Retrospective is sadly incomplete, comprising only 18 of some 40 features, it does include some of his most important works, from his still-remarkable debut, 1965’s Fists in the Pocket, and the even more assured follow-up, 1967’s China is Near, to his latest provocative feature. 2012’s Dormant Beauty, an intelligent and thought-provoking exploration of Italy’s right to life debate (Terri Schiavo was the U.S. equivalent), informs the personal, professional and religious lives of several characters, played splendidly by Isabelle Huppert, Toni Servillo, Maya Sansa, Alba Rohrwacher and the director’s son Pier Giorgio.

Maya Sansa in Dormant Beauty (photo: Francesca Fago)
Accompanying the MOMA retro is a gorgeous hardcover book about Bellocchio. Morality and Beauty, edited by Italian cinema scholar Sergio Toffetti, contains essays and appreciations by critics, collaborators, actors and actresses and other directors about Bellochio’s lengthy cinematic career. The book itself is worth it not only for its insights into his artistry but also for its presentation: there are rare stills from many films, a complete filmography, and even Bellocchio’s own paintings and storyboards for several films. Morality and Beauty is an essential volume for anyone with an interest in one of our greatest filmmakers.

In Bellocchio’s films, from Fists to Dormant Beauty, there are no innocent bystanders: after his first two features, the director himself joined the radical Communist Union in 1968, and the characters populating his dramas are equally committed individuals, in every sense of the word. Bellocchio keeps returning to variations on his themes of obsessive love affairs or relationships often based on abuses of power.

As often as he tackles the incendiary worlds of political, economic and social status—which, in these films, are one and the same—Bellocchio often pushes the envelope even further. 1990’s The Conviction is the movie David Mamet’s Oleanna wishes it were: a professor hides from a young woman he was intimate with in a locked museum overnight the fact that he had the keys all along. Angered, she accuses him of raping her; Bellocchio raises pertinent—and unsettling—questions that remain difficult to answer.

Bellocchio’s most recent films are among his most refined, even as they unfold as hysterically fever-pitched melodramas hinging on notions of faith, idealism and mortality. My Mother’s Smile (2002) takes on the Roman Catholic Church in the form of an atheistic artist horrified to find his deceased mother on the fast track to canonization. Bellocchio shows no mercy depicting a church more concerned with public relations than saving souls.

Good Morning, Night (2003) is a dreamlike retelling of the 1975 kidnapping of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, told from the point of view of terrorist group’s lone woman. Bellocchio, who expertly shows how even radical causes can become domesticated, saturates his film with hallucinatory colors which match the strains of Pink Floyd’s atmospheric music.

Marco Bellocchio on the set of Vincere (photo: Daniele Musso)
2009’s Vincere, another stunning re-examination of Italian history, tells the little-known true story of Ida Dalser, Mussolini’s beautiful, intelligent lover who bore him a son before he became the fascist leader of Italy—whereupon both she and the boy were erased from Il Duce’s life and, consequently, history itself. Intense, gregarious, and thought-provoking from its opening credits, Vincere finds Bellocchio in his most freely expressionist mode, intercutting actual newsreel footage of Mussolini alongside this riveting tale of a real-life heroine fighting against all odds for her and her son’s lives.

Vincere’s frequent, jarring and extreme tonal shifts are reminiscent of Lina Wertmuller’s audacious Seven Beauties (1976), a similarly go-for-baroque masterpiece. Like Seven Beauties, which was anchored by Giancarlo Giannini’s superlative performance, Vincere works so marvelously because Giovanna Mezzogiorno leads us through Ida’s tragic tale. This fabulously expressive actress—whose face is illuminated by the most dazzling pair of hazel eyes in cinema—is the prime focus of Bellocchio’s camera, and her brave, emotionally naked piece of acting is the ultimate collaboration with Italy’s most fearless and fiery filmmaker.

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