A fairy-tale drama played out in a dismally realistic world, Dormant Beauty is torn between high-flown idealistic notions and the practical concerns that drag them down to earth. Detailing a network of fictional stories based on the real-life tragedy of Eluara Englaro, who was taken off life support in 2009 after 17 years in a coma, it concerns a central figure who neither speaks, thinks, or moves, helplessly prone while a nationwide furor erupts around her. The other principals aren’t exactly free either. Presenting a cross-section of hapless politicians, frustrated doctors, and fervent protestors embroiled in the controversy, the film uses this divisive situation as a platform to tackle questions of responsibility and protection, shaping these into a parable about the ills and hopes of modern Italy.
Bellocchio’s last movie, the vigorous, cerebral Vincere, mirrored the rise of Mussolini from left-wing journalist to fascist strongman against that of modern despot and TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi, demonstrating how total control over media outlets allows one to functionally write and rewrite history. Dormant Beauty functions as a companion piece, set during the gradual downfall of the leader’s government, its lame-duck feebleness paired both with and against that of the comatose woman, who functions as a symbol for a slumbering Italy. Like many of Bellocchio’s films, the allegory here is strident and not exactly subtle, the prickly antagonism that characterized his early work tempered by an increased ease at integrating that hostility within multi-layered narratives. In this case however, the potential for acerbic satire gets lost underneath a pile of halfway-conceived story arcs.
This stems from the fact that movie filters all its issue-examination through character drama, situated at the nexus of four storylines, each tangentially related to the others, all loosely connected to the Eluara affair. As politicians contemplate pulling the plug, exhausted senator Uliano Beffardi (Toni Servillo), his reputation tarnished by a previous scandal, prepares to fall in with the conservative party line, despite personal reservations and a radical past. Meanwhile, his daughter, Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), rushes to an anti-euthanasia demonstration, where she finds romance with Roberto (Michele Riondino), a protestor on the opposite side of the picket line. Further afield, a doctor (Bellocchio’s son Pier Giorgio) struggles to save a beautiful drug addict intent on self annihilation, while an actress (Isabelle Huppert) copes with the comatose state of her daughter though elaborate religious pageantry.
This anthology structure is the heart of the film’s shakiness. From a practical standpoint, Dormant Beauty is expertly and elegantly shot, with Bellocchio using deep shadows and sharp, interesting framing to neatly establish the murky outlines of a complicated situation. But in attempting to present a full reckoning of the conflict, the film puts too many elements into play, which means it ends up darting hopelessly between a series of underdeveloped storylines. This takes away from the potential drama between Beffardi, forced to align himself with a political machine he hates in order to save his own skin, and his idealistic daughter, whose romance with a would-be enemy establishes a triangle of complex opposing opinions.
These two linked storylines should have been the entire movie; the hospital segment and Huppert’s odd adventures in a convent add metaphorical shading but little else. Bellocchio’s films have always been busy, recreating chaotic political crises in the microcosm of hectic dysfunctional families; in works like Fists in the Pocket, China Is Near and My Mother’s Smile, this meant the comedy of dissipated upper-crust corruption crossed with lively boudoir farce. But those stories also constructed all the action around a single defining character. That could have been Beffardi, who Servillo portrays with an accomplished sense of resigned exhaustion, but he’s instead pushed into the background, decentered within a film that feels like a roiling, overdetermined mess, instead of a precise circus calibrated around a single defining event.