Steadily productive, fascinatingly erratic, Marco Bellocchio couples a Buñuelian scorn for bourgeois ritual with a Wiseman-like attraction to monolithic institutions and belief systems ready for the wrecking ball. One of the youngest and more leftist sprouts in the bumper crop of new Italian filmmakers in the first half of the ’60s (Pasolini, Olmi, Bertolucci, the Tavianis), Bellocchio in the course of 20-some movies has dynamited small-town and socialist politics, the army, Jesuit education, and the Vatican, but he lit the first and biggest fuse under that most sacred foundation of society: the family.
Fists in His Pocket (1965) ruthlessly satirizes a provincial clan variously enervated by epilepsy, blindness, and seething resentment. When the eldest and most functional of the siblings wants to break away and take a flat in town with his fiancée, younger brother Sandro (Lou Castel, in a performance of knotted-rope tautness) contemplates aiding the cause by killing their less convenient relations. Clenched and twitchy, terrifying yet banal, Sandro is clearly meant to personify a nation’s fascist hangover. Intensified by Alberto Marrama’s stark black-and-white photography and the spooky thrashings of Ennio Morricone’s score, Bellocchio’s debut stirred 41 members of the center-right Christian Democrat Party to call for its ban as an offense against the Italian family—a charge of some irony, since the 26-year-old director made the movie with money borrowed from his own folks and shot it in mountainous Bobbio, not far from where he grew up.
Bellocchio’s subsequent work has, for the most part, gone undistributed in the States. BAM’s series preserves this career lacuna, jumping ahead to the spry pathos of 1984’s Henry IV (1984), a Pirandello adaptation starring Marcello Mastroianni as a nobleman who believes himself to be king; then leaping again to 1991’s The Conviction, a he-said-she-said account of a night spent locked in a museum that leads to sex both semi-coerced and ecstatic. Co-scripted by Bellocchio’s psychoanalyst, the movie becomes a philosophical argument designed as a courtroom drama (or vice versa), posing cogent questions on the meaning of consent, power, and pleasure.
Never complacent, Bellocchio in the last few years has taken on a bold range of periods, subject matter, and tones. Set at the turn of the 20th century, The Nanny (1999) mirrors two women sorrowing through separation from their children: the despondent aristocrat who can’t feed or bond with her newborn and the illiterate peasant girl who leaves her own son to nurse the rich woman’s hungry boy. Patient and affecting, The Nanny nonetheless seems to be missing a last reel, as does My Mother’s Smile (2002), in which a cosmopolitan painter reacts with bitter amusement and explosive rage when he learns that his monstrous mama is up for canonization. A full-body bitch-slap to the Roman Catholic church, the movie at least proved that Bellocchio’s anger at institutional corruption remains bright and raw. He muted his sometimes declamatory style, however, for Good Morning, Night (2003), a terse, cagey, and mournful account of the Red Brigades kidnapping and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro, a Christian Democrat, in 1978. (It was recently acquired for U.S. distribution by Wellspring.) Given the countercultural and even anarchic streaks in Bellocchio’s early work, the film represents a sober morning-after reckoning of ideals and ideologies past.