A very odd thriller” is how Italian director Marco Bellocchio describes My Mother’s Smile, his uncannily beautiful and deeply humanist exploration of the nightmares that resurface from a Roman atheist’s Catholic childhood. The ever excellent Sergio Castellitto plays the unbeliever, Ernesto, a successful painter and children’s book illustrator, separated from his wife (Jacqueline Lustig) but devoted to his young son. One afternoon, a messenger from the Vatican arrives at his studio in Rome and announces, to Ernesto’s dismay, that the painter’s late mother—whom he never particularly liked—is now a candidate for sainthood.
What follows has the overheated, dreamlike quality of someone’s paranoid fantasy, as Ernesto attempts to navigate a maze of baroque familial and papal intrigues while uncomfortably revisiting the past, including his mother’s murder at the hands of his mad, blaspheming brother (Donato Placido). Along the way, he’s challenged to a duel by an imperious count (Toni Bertorelli) and helped—or led astray?—by a fetching young woman who claims to be his son’s religion teacher (Chiara Conti).
Never mind that Bellocchio’s film is one long diatribe against the maternal, seen as the revered foundation of all that is vacant, hypocritical, and ossified in society. It’s wonderful to see this veteran auteur (aided by fine performances and hothouse sets) still grappling with the ideals of May ’68 in a world he—quite correctly—diagnoses as turned increasingly toward a vain and cynical religious mysticism. And yet, having long ago abandoned his faith, he remains mesmerized by the sensual spectacle of holiness that permeates Rome, the city where his cinematic career unfolded, and haunted by suspicion of his own values.