Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:17 pm 
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Marco Bellocchio's new movie, 'L'ora di religione,' has one of the more peculiar premises in cinematic history: an artist and illustrator (I'm afraid he's a movie artist, whose work and life are rather vaguely and glamorously sketched in) learns that his recently deceased mother, whom he thought a bore and a fool, has been proposed by the rest of his family for sainthood, and has a good chance of getting it, and the Vatican wants to ask him a few questions about her death. The artist is stupefied and so are we. Whether we are fascinated and intrigued is another question. The other family members behind the canonization project have enough pretension and influence to want more of what they've already got, and the idea is that the secondhand publicity they'll receive through having a beatified mom will add to their social, political, and financial success. Ernesto Picciafuoco, the artist, is not only appalled by this new development, but also troubled by the simultaneous discovery of his own young son's apparent burgeoning religiosity. What follows is a meandering investigation of the two situations. Ernesto (Sergio Castellitto) looks a little like Dustin Hoffman but with more 'there' there. He has to have presence and intelligence to be at the center of an examination of religion that is as complicated, quirky, and provocative as the one that occupies 'L'ora di religione.' Castellitto's naturalness and humanity do a lot to make the risk of such a weird premise pay off. His scenes with Alberto Mondini as Leonardo, his little son, are absolutely charming and young Mondini is wonderfully spontaneous and real.

If only the other family relationships were as natural and made as much sense. For me the movie fails to come together, partly, I admit, because the Catholic church has never been a big concern of mine, and partly because of flaws in the screenplay and the style that make the story even harder to follow than it would be anyway. Every role other than Ernesto's and Ettore's is more or less a cameo. There are complicated theological disputes that are suddenly broken off by surreal fantasies. (Bellocchio wavors back and forth between satirical realism and obscurantist hyperrealism, and the combination doesn't work well here.) There is the too-perfect and too-beautiful Diana Sereni (Chiara Conti), the teacher of Ettore's 'ora di religione' (religion class), who has apparently inspired Ettore's precocious religious crisis and whom Ernesto promptly falls in love with at their first meeting. Instead of a dubious influence as seemed at first, she eventually appears to be a better candidate for sainthood than mom, just on the basis of the magical glow around her face when she's onscreen. Ernesto, with Castellitto's able assistance, despite the odd premise and the shaky plot development, continues to retain some degree of three-dimensionality throughout, but the others tend to the stereotypical. The artist's estranged wife pops up every so often only to help Ernesto take young Ettore to school, a scene that recurs with tiresome repetitiveness.

The Vatican 'investigation' that draws in Ernesto aims to discover whether a brother, currently incarcerated, murdered their mother in her sleep, or, as a new rumor has it, whether the mother was awake and forgave her son for doing her in. A favorable answer to this question might tip the scale for mom from the merely super-nice into the saintly category, or from the saintly into the canonizable. Unfortunately this whole issue also strained my credulity far beyond its capacity. Ernesto's bizarre interview on this topic with a Cardinal, Don Piumini (Maurizio Donadoni) in what appears to be a Vatican dining hall for poor and disabled people, is memorable if only for Piumini's stylized manner and strong presence. (One concrete thing I learned from this movie is that Italian Catholic clerics wear the latest chic eyeglasses.)

Equally bizarre is a gathering of rightwing ideologues led by a certain Count Bulla, who challenges Ernesto to a duel. What century are we in? Bellocchio's movie is outrageously personal. In America we'd call it self-indulgent; but he's Italian and this movie is serious and intellectual enough to have been the only Italian entry at Cannes. There is a waste of skill and talent here. This is a gifted filmmaker, and these are excellent actors, and this is material of potentially enormous importance to the audience (if not to me). For some it will all work. It will seem tremendously original and thought provoking. For others it will be cause for head shaking and rueful remarks about what ever happened to the great Italian cinema of those wonderful twenty years of cultural flowering in Italy after the end of World War II. Rossellini, De Sica, Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni: where are you now when we need you?

June 4, 2002

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