Few filmmakers are better at managing intersections of private and political life than Marco Bellocchio, which is why Dormant Beauty—his occasionally ham-fisted take on the Eluana Englaro case, which dominated Italian news and politics in early 2009—comes across as a small disappointment. Split four ways, the movie follows an atheist politician, his Catholic daughter, a devoutly religious actress, and a drug addict while the debate about Englaro—who spent 17 years in a persistent vegetative state while her family fought to have her taken off life support—yammers on in the background. Though the movie eschews facile sloganeering, few of its characters or narrative threads are able to develop beyond their function as metaphors.
The best of the intercut storylines stars Toni Servillo (The Great Beauty) as Uliano Beffardi, an ex-socialist who has joined Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party out of convenience. Bellocchio imagines the FI headquarters as a palatial bunker, windowless, paneled with dark wood and upholstered in deep red; its private baths resemble a kind of Roman hell, with senators draped in toga-like towels wandering through clouds of rising steam. In this darkly comic, mythological underworld of Italian politics, Beffardi struggles to choose between his conscience and his political future while the party’s Mephistophelean staff psychiatrist (Roberto Herlitzka, who played Aldo Moro in Bellocchio’s superb Good Morning, Night) lurks in the background.
Bellocchio’s movies often equate visual and moral ambiguity. Like Vincere, the last Bellocchio film to get a Stateside release, Dormant Beauty finds the director working with a reduced Eastwoodian palette dominated by thick shadows; at times, only the outline of a character’s face is visible against the blackness of the screen. As the lighting gets dimmer, Bellocchio’s direction becomes more focused, playing off Carlo Crivelli’s emotive neoclassical score to turn close-ups into arias.
Though only the Beffardi thread could sustain a movie on its own, the other three have their share of spotlight moments: The unnamed actress (Isabelle Huppert), who has abandoned her career to care for her comatose daughter, stomping around her funeral-parlor-like house; the final scenes between hospitalized junkie Rossa (Maya Sansa) and her self-appointed caretaker, Dr. Pallido (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, the director’s son), which brings the film’s fuzziest narrative into focus; the hotel tryst between Beffardi’s daughter, Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), and a young man from the other side of the picket line. As in his other films about Italian politics, Bellocchio deftly integrates archival footage, evoking the media climate of the time while also underscoring the conflict between the public image of politics and the more complex reality lurking underneath.
Since his punkish 1965 debut, Fists In The Pocket, about a teenager who plans to murder his mother and siblings, Bellocchio has used irreparably broken families to explore social and political dynamics. (Vincere, arguably his most fully realized work, depicted the rise of Italian fascism from the perspective of Benito Mussolini’s forcibly institutionalized first wife, Ida Dalser.) And though Dormant Beauty boasts two different cracked homes—Beffardi’s and the unnamed actress’—both come across as overly schematic; the metaphors are clear but not engrossing. Though peppered with intense performances and sharp monologues, it’s too scattered for its own good—the work of a great filmmaker at his second-best.