Italian director Marco Bellocchio rocketed to fame in 1965 with Fists in the Pocket, a riveting look at epileptics, and 1967's China is Near, which daringly dealt with Maoism when this was a strictly taboo topic. Bellocchio's leftist bent was also evident in 2009's Vincere, about the son of Mussolini and his mistress. Bellocchio is still pushing the proverbial envelope: His latest offering, Dormant Beauty, shown at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival, combines the searing look at sickness and hard-hitting politics of his first two features with yet another forbidden subject.
The topical Dormant Beauty is about - depending on your point of view - the right to die, or rather, perhaps, the right to life. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Italy is torn apart by warring factions who oppose state-sanctioned and -administered deaths, in particular for people in comas. Bellocchio skillfully interweaves news footage about an actual 2008 court battle involving a woman who has been in a vegetative state for 17 years and is about to be removed from life support, with several private stories that are variations on the same theme, proving once again that the political is also personal.
Tony Servillo (2008's Il Divo, 2010's Gorbaciof) stars as an Italian senator who decides to go against party discipline and do that odd thing in bourgeois electoral politics: take a principled stand in favor of the right to die and deciding to end one's own life. In the process the senator ends his own political life. (At one point a protester mocks him for turning his back on socialism.)
Meanwhile, the senator's own wife is dying in the hospital, and his daughter, Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), joins the religious zealots who vociferously oppose the right to die. She has one of Dormant Beauty's two "cute meets," as she romances Roberto (Michele Riondino), whom she encounters through demonstrations regarding the fate of the comatose woman. Although they are on opposite sides of the issue, the couple provide the movie's nude scene. Roberto's brother Pipino (Fabrizio Falco) is a right to die fanatic as angry and disturbed as any of the characters in Fists in the Pocket.
The sensuous Italian/Iranian actress Maya Sansa plays a suicidal thief and addict who has the movie's other cute meet, with the compassionate Dr. Pallido (the director's son, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio). Playing true to type, the great French actress Isabelle Huppert portrays a thespian called Divina Madre, whose own daughter hovers between life and death in a coma.
It's an odd thing that (especially in this country) the so-called right to life movement fanatically opposes abortion and assisted suicides, but often the very same leaders and rank and file true believers are gung-ho when it comes to capital punishment and going to war. I guess matters of life and death are like comedy - it's all in the timing. Be that as it may, Marco Bellocchio remains in good form and renders a trenchant, poignant, thoughtful look at this controversial issue. After all these years he is still relevant and making compelling films. Watch for local release.
"Dormant Beauty" (Bella addormentata)
Directed by Marco Bellocchio
Italy/France, 2012, 115 min.
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