From the Aisles of the Cinematheque: A Weekend with Marco Bellocchio

By Susan Doll

The Facets Cinematheque presents a two-day celebration of the work of veteran director Marco Bellocchio this weekend, December 18 and 19. Cosponsored by the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago, with help from Cinecitta Luce, this three-film mini-fest highlights the contributions of an important director of an era dubbed the New Italian Cinema. The 35mm prints will show of the director’s work to its best advantage. Bellocchio’s films never caught the attention of American audiences like those of his peers Bernardo Bertolucci or Francesco Rosi, undoubtedly because his harsh, edgy depiction of Italy is neither sexy like BB’s nor achingly melancholy like Rosi’s. But, with their scenes of matricide, incest, and familial decay, Bellocchio’s films will sear into your memory and linger in your consciousness, prompting you to rethink those Christmas plans with the family.

What Is the New Italian Cinema and Why Does It Matter? (continued)

During the 1970s, a new era in Italian cinema emerged that featured films with political content and themes. Directors as diverse as Bernardo Bertolucci and the Taviani Brothers dominated this period, which was dubbed the New Italian Cinema. Some claim that Bellocchios’ first feature film, Fists in the Pocket (showing Sat., Dec. 18, at 3pm) launched this era, or at least foreshadowed it.

The late 1960s and 1970s were a time of profound dissatisfaction throughout the world, and the resulting anger, frustration, and resentment not only prompted attempts at change but also fueled the arts, especially film. Campus unrest in America instigated by the Vietnam War led to the exposure of other social ills chronicled by the Film School Generation; students and workers in France protested against a modern consumer and technical society, and they were joined on the front lines by New Wave directors like Godard; radical political groups in Germany adopted violence and terrorism as tactics of social change, while the New German Cinema called for a new kind of filmmaking; the youth of the Eastern Bloc countries rallied against the restraints of old-school Soviet communism and its numbing bureaucracy, launching the Czech New Wave. In Italy, directors of the New Italian Cinema were part of the young generation fed up with the consumer-driven society of the postwar era, especially after the extensive economic growth of the 1960s ended abruptly. Inflation, reduced productivity, and the Arab oil embargo resulted in unemployment and high prices, while sweeping social changes—such as the adoption of divorce—paralleled the economic distress.

Today, our current political landscape has gridlocked any attempts at real social change, and our response to it, in part, is to numb ourselves with more and more escapist fare delivered to us via increasingly sophisticated technology—3-D movies, action-packed video games, 24-hour cable television, and the ability to download entertainment into our computers or TVs, so we don’t have to get up off the couch. Often, even the most well-meaning cinephile is averse to watching a challenging film in the comfort of his/her own home, where relaxing after a long, hard day is an understandable desire. Sadly, challenging, confrontational cinema has been marginalized in the process. Bellocchio and the New Italian Cinema are important, because it’s healthy and even inspirational to revisit the films of another era to see a different, more provocative response to the socio-political scene.

A Fistful of Bellocchio

Many claim the New Italian Cinema was jump-started with Fists in the Pocket (I Pugni in Tasca) in 1965. The title suggests the pent-up rage of young Italians, dissatisfied with the socio-political decisions made by the previous generations and their subsequent complacency. The image conjured up by the title is that of an angry person with his hands balled up in his pockets, with the fists becoming ever tighter until the person explodes with rage. It is a fitting title to launch an era of filmmaking that was a response to the turbulent times.

On the surface, the plot of the film, which is about a bourgeois family living a monotonous existence in the provinces, seems to be personal, not political. But, Bellocchio uses the institution of the bourgeois family as an allegory for all that is wrong with Italian society. Save for one son, all the members of the family suffer from seizures—a sign of unhealthy decay on the intellectual and spiritual levels. In other words, Italy’s bourgeois class is rotting from within. Even the family home looks decrepit and uninviting, with pock-marked walls and minimal furnishings. The mother is blind, a symbol of the previous generation’s inability to see what destruction it has wrought. When watching the film, don’t fall into trap of taking the family and all their dysfunction at face value, or the social significance of the story’s events will be lost. In this light, one son’s efforts to deal with what his pathetic family should be seen as an act of liberation and renewal, not one of destruction.

Bellocchio’s primary device as a filmmaker is to posit the family as a microcosm of society and its ills, particularly the middle class. Long after the New Italian Cinema faded away, Bellocchio remained dedicated to a cinema with a social conscious, and he continued to use the family as his metaphor of choice, as in The Conviction (La Condanna, 1990) and The Nanny (La Balia, 1999). The former will be shown at the Facets Cinematheque on Saturday at 5:00 pm, and the latter on Sunday at 3:00 pm.

Despite the socially relevant themes and agenda, the cinema of Marco Bellocchio is also provocatively personal. As he noted to The New York Times: “I make films to look at my life—and then to try and change in my life what I don’t like.” On Friday, I will focus specifically on Bellochio’s life and career and offer more information on the three films spotlighted in the Cinematheque this weekend.

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