Dormant Beauty (Bella Addormentata): Venice Review

Bella Addormentata
Marco Bellocchio reaffirms the dignity of life in another film of sparkling intelligence, set around a real-life euthanasia case.

Italian master Marco Bellocchio's tale of a modern-day Sleeping Beauty features a top cast top-lining Toni Servillo, Isabelle Huppert, Alba Rohrwacher and Maya Sansa.

With typical intelligence and complexity, director Marco Bellocchio weaves three stories around the politically hot topic of euthanasia, turning a real-life Italian national drama into engrossing narrative for sophisticated audiences. Refusing to offer easy answers or perspectives, Dormant Beauty is directed in such a way it doesn’t need to take a clear-cut position on the question, because like all the director’s work it has no concern with convincing people of anything, but a great deal of interest in illuminating contemporary Italian society. Its unqualified success in doing so should make it a full-fledged contender for a major prize at Venice and help it to closely imitate the international sales of his recent work.  

Like Bellocchio’s film about the Aldo Moro assassination, Good Morning, Night, the story takes off from real events that obsessed Italians in 2009 when Beppe Englaro decided to take his daughter Eluana, in a coma for 17 years following a car accident, off mechanical life support. The most remarkable thing about the case was the father’s insistence on seeing Italian law applied rather than taking the easy route of doing it quietly on the sly (the film shows two examples). The case of Eluana became a cause celebre that pitted pro-life activists against the girl’s family; prime minister Silvio Berlusconi also got involved and politicians, seeing fertile ground for cashing in on voters’ strong feelings, turned the sad case into a parliamentary vote.

PHOTOS: Venice Film Festival Days 4 Through 6: 'The Master,' 'Love Is All You Need' Premiere Gallery

The case is still a hot topic as shown by the fact that the Northeast province and region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, where the film was shot, took the almost unbelievable step of cancelling their active Film Commission, theoretically for budget reasons but most probably to block financing to this film and avoid controversy. The Film Commission logo does appear on the opening credits, however.      

As might be expected from the director of My Mother’s Smile, a.k.a.The Religion Hour, Catholic vs. secular views about euthanasia square off.  The religious-minded young Maria (Alba Rohrwacher sporting a no-makeup, Catholic schoolgirl look) demonstrates on the opposite side of police lines from a boy she likes, Roberto (Michele Riondino), and his rabidly angry, mentally ill brother. It’s an honest, clean relationship that leaps across ideological barriers, at least while they fall in love.

In another story so subtly interwoven it seems to overlap, a famous actress (Isabelle Huppert) obsessively cares for her own coma-stricken sleeping beauty, her daughter Rosa, with a small army of nurses and nuns. Though no cardinals or bishops appear in the story, Huppert embodies the Catholic p.o.v.; her neglected son even calls her “the Divine Mother.” It’s not a disrespectful portrait of a mother’s pain, but the very fact that the cold Huppert plays a Francesca Bertini-style diva, one who dreams of Lady Macbeth in her sleep, signals how distant she is from the screenwriters’ affection.

In a third story, Dr. Pallido (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) becomes attracted to a beautiful, suicidal drug addict (Maya Sansa) and watches over her sedated sleep in a public hospital, while doctors and orderlies are cynically betting on how long Eluana will survive.  The young doctor’s attention may not be disinterested, but it offers space to affirm the positive value of life and freedom:  “You’re free to kill yourself,” he tells the girl, “and I’m free to try to stop you.”   

The film’s real center of empathy, however, is Toni Servillo’s very human impersonation of Uliano Beffardi, an honest politician. A first-term senator elected for Berlusconi’s party, he’s called on to vote for a law against euthanasia designed specifically to stop Eluana Englaro from being taken off life support. It goes completely against his conscience, especially given a traumatic event in his past.   

Uliano contemplates resigning from office to honor his beliefs, but he’s deathly afraid of losing the trust of his daughter, Maria. Their differing ideas about the Englaro case are a painful source of friction. Meanwhile, he reluctantly goes to Rome where the political tension is peaking as the vote approaches.

Remarkably, Bellocchio takes time out for wry humor that will help the film immeasurably at the Italian box office and beyond. The script he wrote with Stefano Rulli and Veronica Raimo contains a scene for the archives that tears the political class to pieces, allowing the best of Italian liberalism to triumph for one brief moment. The droll, lined face of Roberto Herlitzka, who played Aldo Moro, animates the surreal figure of a shrink who seems to work in the Senate (or maybe in party headquarters) prescribing uppers and downers to depressed politicians. There’s even a candle-lit Turkish bath where the pols relax like ancient Roman senators, with their heads sticking out of a steamy pool while they watch closed-circuit TV of live parliamentary debates.

Bellocchio’s excellent technical crew lead by director of photography Daniele Cipri’ (who directed Toni Servillo in the other Italian film in Venice competition, It Was the Son) gives the film a dark, rich look echoed in Carlo Crivelli’s moving dramatic score and its magical adaptation of David Bowie’s Abdulmajid.

Venue: Venice Film Festival, Sept. 5, 2012.Production companies: Cattleya, Rai Cinema, Babe Films

Cast: Toni Servillo, Alba Rohrwacher, Maya Sansa, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Isabelle Huppert, Michele Riondino, Gian Marco Tognazzi, Fabrizio Falco, Brenno Placido, Roberto Herlitzka, Federica Fracassi
Director: Marco Bellocchio
Screenwriters: Marco Bellocchio, Veronica Raimo, Stefano Rulli
Producers: Riccardo Tozzi, Marco Chimenz, Giovanni Stabilini
Co-producer: Fabio Conversi

Executive producer: Francesca Longardi
Director of photography: Daniele Cipri’
Production designer: Marco Dentici
Costumes: Sergio Ballo
Editor: Francesca Calvelli
Music: Carlo Crivelli
Sales Agent: Celluloid Dreams
No rating, 115 minutes.