Elegy for Eluana: Italy’s Marco Bellocchio meditates on death and politics in ‘Dormant Beauty’
Fifty years after his groundbreaking feature debut Fists in the Pocket, Marco Bellocchio remains one of Italy's most admired and challenging directors. His latest movie, Dormant Beauty, opening June 6 through Emerging Pictures, tackles the right to die, an issue that polarized Italy in 2009 with the case of Eluana Englaro.
With his daughter in a vegetative state for 17 years, Englaro's father fought to have her feeding tubes removed. Church officials and later Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi opposed taking her off life support. Giorgio Napolitano, the President of the Republic, refused to sign Berlusconi's decree ordering the continuation of Englaro's care, bringing the country to the brink of a legislative crisis.
Dormant Beauty includes details about the Englaro case, and for one subplot Bellocchio's crew reconstructed an informal shrine that arose outside her hospital. But as the director explains, Englaro was just the starting point for a series of parallel stories that explore different aspects of the problem.
"This is not a biopic about poor Eluana," the director says. "And it's not a movie about euthanasia. This case was important in Italy, it unleashed a religious war of sorts, between the secular side of the spectrum and the more religious. And it was this drama that struck me particularly. In fact, you never see Eluana in the movie except in TV images."
Dormant Beauty takes place during the last days of Englaro's life. Working with screenwriters Veronica Raimo and Stefano Rulli, Bellocchio devised a set of interlocking stories that contrast characters with opposing views.
Maria Beffardi (Alba Rohrwacher) is a pro-life activist who demonstrates outside Englaro's hospital. Her father Uliano Beffardi (Toni Servillo), a member of the Senate, is willing to give up his seat to defy Berlusconi. Maria meets Roberto (Michele Riondino), who questions her commitment to pro-life forces. His brother's emotional issues add another complication.
A parallel story involves an actress and devout Catholic (played by Isabelle Huppert) who is keeping her comatose daughter alive despite the trouble it causes her husband (Gian Marco Tognazzi) and son (Brenno Placido). And in another narrative thread, emergency-room doctor Pallido (played by Bellocchio's son Pier Giorgio) tries to rescue Rossa (Maya Sansa), a drug addict determined to kill herself.
"What I wanted to do in general, I felt there was a need for Italians to consider, to think about the nuances of this case," Bellocchio declares. "At the time all of Italian TV, and much of European television as well, was focused exclusively on this story, 24/7. So I tried to frame these series of private stories in a national context."
Dormant Beauty unfolds in a deceptively simple yet intimate fashion, as Bellocchio mixes documentary footage and fictional scenes, juggling the several storylines effortlessly. The director downplays his role, praising instead Daniele Cipri, his cinematographer here and on 2009's Vincere.
"In addition to being a great cinematographer, Daniele Cipri is a great director himself, a very original artist," Bellocchio says. "He has a special sensitivity towards light, and I think our sensibilities sort of coalesce around that. He's respectful, he's correct, always professional, but I have to say he's also a remarkably original cinematographer."
Bellocchio admits that earlier in his career, "I was much more careful about framing, I would go to the camera and check everything. Now I try to use just what is necessary and avoid any kind of indulgence."
Trim, voluble and expressive, Bellocchio addresses each question in a forthright manner, sometimes talking over translator Michael Moore to emphasize a point. Perhaps understandably, he is reluctant to discuss just how penetrating his work can get.
"You know the starting point for me is always an image," he reflects, "a visual image. Something pictorial. I don't have a message, I don't start out with some kind of moral imperative to investigate a socially relevant problem. All the social elements you see in Dormant Beauty, they come in later."
That doesn't explain the complex emotions and intellectual insights the director elicits from his cast. The heart of Dormant Beauty is a sensational, eleven-minute debate between Rossa and Dr. Pallido, a back-and-forth over the right to die that becomes a battle for the drug addict's soul.
Bellocchio rehearsed the scene "for a couple of days" and then shot it over a two-day stretch, first with two cameras, then with one. Outside the interview area later, Pier Giorgio admits that the scene was difficult—"in part because we were in a theatre, not a hospital room, and I am an actor, not a doctor." But his father claims it was a piece of cake.
"The truth is, it was a very simple scene to shoot," he says, smiling. "It was a long scene with two close-ups. You really can't get that wrong. It's not something you can have the actors do three or four times, because it would be useless. I started with two cameras because I wanted to capture their energy, I didn't want one to be working for the other."
Pressed for how he maintained the scene's tone and pacing over two days, Bellocchio replies, "Sometimes you try things in a film that are very complicated, sometimes you just have a close-up of a character speaking. The stuff that works best is often the simplest."
His explanation bypasses the careful narrative groundwork established in the movie's preceding hour; Cipri's restless, probing camera; the precise editing by longtime collaborator Francesca Cavelli; and the splendid acting by Maya Sansa and the director's son.
But Bellocchio does reveal a fan of the scene: President Giorgio Napolitano.
"I don't know the world of Italian politicians, so I was surprised when I was in Milan to get a phone call from Napolitano. He said what struck him most was this scene between the young doctor and the drug addict, maybe because it condenses the entire story. And maybe also because the President is himself a former—a long time ago—film and theatre critic."
Bellocchio has trouble describing how he rehearses. "It's very hard for me to answer that," he says, shaking his head. "I like working with actors very much, maybe because I'm a failed actor myself. I tried it out and then I gave it up.
"I don't really have a method. In all of my films, I write sometimes by myself, sometimes with others, but I guess I know these characters very deeply. I can talk to an actor about that character, but I don't really have a method like Western directors who are interested in Stanislavsky and Strasberg. My approach is much more pragmatic, familiar. What my method does demand is having a deep relationship of trust and intimacy."
Bellocchio is eager to praise Sansa, an actress he first worked with in 1999's La balia (The Nanny), her feature debut. "It was a tough role for her, yes," he agrees. "But I think in Maya's case, and maybe with actors in general, we say they interpret a scene well or act well because on some level their performance resembles them. And in Maya's case, with this character, nothing could be further from who she is in her personal life, in her private life. I think her greatness in this is being able to create such a complete character that is so different from who she is. She is one of the great actors."
Bellocchio was in New York to attend a retrospective of his career—including screenings of China Is Near, an adaptation of Pirandello's Henry IV with Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, Devil in the Flesh, and Good Morning, Night, a recreation of the Aldo Moro kidnapping—at the Museum of Modern Art. Warm and outgoing, he nevertheless has a piercing, intimidating intelligence that is reflected in his work.
"He's proven himself to have one of the longest and most distinguished careers of all the current-day Italian directors," says Ira Deutchman, whose Emerging Pictures is distributing Dormant Beauty. "One of the things that gets me really excited working with him is that he's proof that the golden days of Italian cinema are hardly over."