The newest film by Marco Bellocchio, one of Italy’s most revered directors, Dormant Beauty, initially seems like a risky proposition, being that it intends to marry both the often over-stuffed ensemble drama subgenre and what’s essentially an “issue” film. The exact fear being that the narrative would strain in a series of contrivances while also mass sermonizing. And yet, while the film still treads some dangerous territory in regards to its structure and themes — the dreaded blunt ruminations on “connection” and furthermore “how we live now” — the sure hand of an intelligent writer and director is thankfully felt.
Of course, being based on the actual events of the Eluana Englaro euthanasia debate from February 2009 that very publicly saw an ideological split in Italy, Bellocchio’s film thus earns the additional label of “docudrama,” which would only seem to reinforce possible concerns. Yet the film reveals itself as less about what it means to take a life than how the circumstances regarding the decision always runs far deeper into the mechanics of contemporary society. This is seen through the platitude of characters, including the politician Beffardi (Toni Servillo) who’s faced with the task of voting on whether to pull the plug or not on Englaro, yet facing opposing pressures; the respective beliefs of his party and his pro-life daughter, Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), who herself by chance begins a romance with the brother of a protestor from the other side.
Bourgeois self-loathing comes further articulated with a famed actress referred only to as Divine Mother (Isabelle Huppert), who turns to Catholicism to cure her own coma-stricken daughter (at one point she amusingly instructs the nuns in her home to pray louder and faster), while in the process alienating the rest of her family. The storyline most removed of the real event at hand has a suicidal drug-addicted woman, Rossa, under the care of a young doctor who’s determined to save her; a relationship that perhaps best exemplifies the power-play of control running throughout the film but on the most purely human level.
At just under two hours, the film has, despite its multiple threads, a certain briskness and moreso playfulness, even if it doesn’t seem immediately apparent under the seeming portent of its the muted colors and real-life issues. Tip-offs, whether it be the convenience of Maria’s romance, the piano being played in the corner of the comatose daughter’s room, or even another sequence with Maria which abruptly cuts to Beffadi before we even know he’s about to make a call to her. The last example though only lightly illustrates the film’s most noticeable visual motif; the screen, whether it be in the palm of the hand or mounted on a wall; in either case displaying the public theatre of politics as well as the private affairs of its characters’ lives.
Though, being that the domination of media and technology is already one of the key preoccupations of 21st century cinema, it’s no profound statement in and of itself to simply remind us. Bellocchio though is on the right track by telling of us the actual content that fill these screens; consider an example from the film of the camera phone-taken image of a loved one replacing the more classic photo in the wallet, only one indication of the film’s central strategy of showing dehumanized modern living for what’s of course a debate entirely about what is and isn’t humane.
Its intentions inevitably verge into the didactic with Beffardi’s story; the conformity of the Berlusconi-era being made apparent to virtually everyone in the audience by his frequent verbal reminders of the pressure that his party enforces. This comes less an offense when it’s partly subverted with a reveal regarding his own dead wife. All this shows Dormant Beauty as an unabashed melodrama, one that obviously wants to have its finger on the pulse of today, yet unafraid of pulling tricks both sincere and comical, which undoubtedly prevents it from collapsing under the weight of its grand inquiries.
Dormant Beauty hits limited release this Friday, June 6th.