Dormant Beauty (Bella addormentata) (Marco Bellochio – Italy/France) 115 minutes
Marco Bellochio’s first film, Fists in the Pocket (1965) starred Lou Castel as a young malcontent who kills off, one by one, all the members of his family. Bellochio’s latest also involves putting an end to the days of family members though this time the context is less sinister: termination of life support for vegetative patients. The film takes place against the backdrop of the Eluana Eglano case – Italy’s answer to Terri Schiavo – a patient who had been in a permanent vegetative state for 17 years and whose family was fighting for the right to turn off life support. Silvio Berlusconi’s government and the Catholic church led a campaign against termination with Berlusconi saying, with unfailing crassness, that Eglano ‘looked pretty well and could even give birth to a son’.
Though the case is explicitly referred to in the film and the actual nursing home in Udine where Eluana was being treated is used, the action focuses on a number of peripheral, fictional characters. Among them are Roberto and his bipolar brother Pippo, supporters of the family’s right to end the life support; Roberto starts a clandestine romance with Maria (Alma Rohrwacher – previously seen in The Solitude of Prime Numbers), one of the Catholic pro-life protesters. Maria’s father (the ever excellent Toni Servillo, best known outside Italy for his role as Giulio Andreotti in Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo) is a Senator in Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, who is being nagged by an outbreak of conscience that prompts him to refuse the compromise vote his leader has imposed on the party. His wife, and Maria’s mother is also in a vegetative state, as is the daughter of a French actress, splendidly named Divina Madre (Isabelle Huppert), who is similarly opposed to pulling the plug, against her son’s wishes. Finally, there is a young doctor, played by Bellochio’s son and regular collaborator Pier Giorgio, who is watching over Rossa, a thirty-something recidivist junkie, who has sunk into a coma.
If that sounds a bit contrived, it is. Bellochio’s attempt to dramatise the polemic between contemporary secular ethics and a dogmatic Catholic fetish for heart-beats and pulses is intelligent and compelling from a socio-historical point of view. It is far too schematic though, with some of the outlying relationships struggling to come to life – Huppert, in particular, seems to be there only to attract investment to the film. The film is also dramatically sluggish – though Dormant Beauty treats of a matter of life and death, it doesn’t move with an attendant urgency. It is a relatively minor Bellochio, not a patch on his last film Vincere, which told the tale of Mussolini’s criminally neglected mistress Ida Dalser. Dormant Beauty does impart the usual Bellochian chilliness that pervades the grand houses of unhappy bourgeois families, which he has been cultivating ever since Lou Castel was balling up his fists in his pockets.