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Fifty years ago Marco Bellocchio shot his electrifying debut film Fists in the Pocket in the northern Italian town of Bobbio, and like a ghost intent on haunting the place, he returns there to tell tall tales in Blood of My Blood (Sangue del mio sangue.) The atmosphere is at once creepy and grotesquely comic and, typical of the director’s recent work, the meaning of the stories is none too clear. For audiences willing to embrace ambiguity and let the characters and images weave their spell, this masterfully shot film played by the director’s stock cast is a treasure. It is one of the highlights in Venice competition this year and should do well roaming the world’s art houses.
Throughout Bellocchio’s long career he has taken a lot of risks and generally gotten away with it. Here the viewer is challenged to connect the dots between the horror story of a 17th century witch trial, and a farcical modern-day encounter between a vampire and a tax inspector. This disconnect is the film’s Achilles’ heel and one wishes there were more clues.
Both stories take place in Bobbio’s old convent prison, which has been abandoned for decades. Contrasting the bad old days with the trivial new ones, the film finally surrenders to the modern world as it is in all its colorful, nonsensical ugliness. But behind its apparent idiocy, there still lurks a rebellious world of the spirit that no repressive religious or political authority can suppress. In this sense the past does shed light on the present, and the film’s final scene is a knockout.
The first story is immersed in the oppresive heaviness of a traditional Catholic world, filled with the same hypocrisy and sheepish conformism that Bellocchio attacked in films like In the Name of the Father and My Mother’s Smile. He also throws in his 2010 film The Mai Sisters, who are pressed into service as the devoutly religious Perletti sisters, soon the willing bedfellows of their swaggering houseguest. Alba Rohrwacher and Federica Fracassi are delicately humorous in the roles.
Benedetta (Lidiya Lieberman), a young nun living in the cloisters of the St. Clare convent, has sinned. She has had an affair with her confessor, and the priest has killed himself in remorse. It is up to his twin brother Federico Mai (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio), a violent man of arms, to convince the girl to confess her pact with Satan. Otherwise the suicide cannot be buried in holy ground and will end up in the donkey cemetery, much to their mother’s sorrow.
So Federico is highly motivated and totally uncompassionate, though not impervious to Benedetta’s charms. He seems unmoved at the sight of her strung up by her feet, moaning. On the suggestion of the wily head priest (Fausto Russo Alesi) he pretends to be his dead brother, but the girl is no fool. With her hair brutally chopped off, she recalls Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc as she bravely faces a squad of torturers who put her through the tests of water, fire and tears, to determine whether she’s made a pact with Satan. Lieberman plays her as a true heroine, silent and defiant till the end, when masons are brought in to wall her up alive in classic Nun of Monza fashion.
In its less structured second half, the film brims with such unexpectedly broad humor that it may leave some of the director’s fans nonplussed. Though we’re still in Bobbio, it’s now the 21st century of Ferraris and social media. A swinging Russian billionaire (Ivan Franek) has noticed the decrepit convent prison is up for sale on Internet, and decided to invest. The deal is being brokered by a smooth operator from the regional government named Federico Mai. Their sudden appearance sends the townspeople for a loop, and not only because the convent is the secret home of Count Basta (a magnificent Roberto Hertlitzka), a cultured vampire who has been around for centuries and basically runs Bobbio behind the scenes. They are also terrified of being arrested for serious infractions of the penal code, such as milking the state with fraudulent pension claims. Italian audiences will know instantly what is at stake here, though foreigners may have to reach for it.
To save the day, that night Count Basta rises from his bed in the dusky quarters of the cloisters and is driven into town by his faithful servant. He first confronts the heads of a secret Foundation he belongs to. Italian viewers will also get the reference to Italy’s covert power groups much faster than others. The actors, who include Toni Bertorelli as a cadaverous dentist and Filippo Timi as a crass madman, are all amusing.
The film is dotted with choirs and singing in both centuries, and the heavenly music of the Scala & Kolacny Brothers’ Nothing Else Matters is perfectly inserted into Carlo Crivelli’s beautiful score. Cinematographer Daniele Cipri creates a sense of heaviness and eternal darkness in the convent scenes that match the paintings on the walls, while he trashes the modern day in garish, confused colors and neon lighting. Between the past and present, it’s clear what side the aesthetics are on.
Production companies: Kavac Film, IBC Movie, Rai Cinema in association with Barbary Films, Amka Films, RSI Switzerland.
Cast: Roberto Herlitzka, Lidiya Lieberman, Alba Rohrwacher, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Fausto Russo Alesi, Federica Fracassi, Alberto Cracco, Bruno Cariello, Toni Bertorelli, Filippo Timi, Elena Bellocchio, Ivan Franek, Patrizia Bettini, Sebastiano Filocamo, Alberto Bellocchio
Director, screenwriter: Marco Bellocchio
Producers: Simone Gattoni, Beppe Caschetto, Fabio Conversi, Tiziana Soudani, Gabriella de Gara
Director of photography: Daniele Cipri
Production designer: Andrea Castorina
Music: Carlo Crivelli
Costumes: Daria Calvelli
Editors: Francesca Calvelli, Claudio Misantoni
Sales Agent: The Match Factory
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