Among the dense interplay of four narratives set against the final days of Eluana Englaro’s life in 2009, a consistent image comes up throughout Marco Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty, that of someone awaiting a reply, even when all evidence suggests they will not be answered. As such, it’s a film about faith, but one that explores and puts greater emphasis on faith in connection, in humanity, than in the Almighty depicted in Catholicism, of which Bellocchio is an outspoken, defiantly angry critic. The fight over Eluana’s euthanasia, a decision made by her father not long after the 1992 accident that left her in a persistent vegetative state but not enacted for 17 years, is not, however, Bellocchio’s prime chance to throw darts at Catholicism. Instead, Bellocchio utilizes the urgent passions and protests that erupted when Eluana’s feeding tube was removed to investigate modern communication in his uniquely humanistic way.
Our perceived human disconnect is expertly evoked from the very beginning, as many of Bellocchio’s central characters are seen watching reports on Eluana’s status on television, alone. At first, it’s even a task to determine that the woman Senator Uliano Beffardi (Toni Servillo) is barely speaking with is his devout daughter, Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), who’s heading to a vigil in Udine. Beffardi himself is conflicted about publicly falling in line with the anti-euthanasia opinion heralded by Berlusconi, considering he took his own wife off of life supports years prior. (In his tasteless and sexist fashion, Berlusconi opined that Eluana looked like she “could even give birth to a son” during her final days.) As the senator wrestles with this conundrum, Maria meets and is quickly romanced by Roberto (Michele Riondino), a liberal protesting against the Catholics alongside his manic-depressive brother (Fabrizio Falco).
Meanwhile, a famed, essentially nameless actress (Isabelle Huppert) is handling her own personal tragedy, as she awaits her daughter’s awakening from a coma. Her obsession with her daughter’s condition, not to mention a newfound interest in Catholicism, has made her cold toward both her husband (Gianmarco Tognazzi) and her son, Federico (Brenno Placido), who’s prepping a monologue to get into acting academy; it’s telling that, early on, Frederico is seen hypnotized by Huppert in Lady of the Camelias. As much as Beffardi’s unanswered calls to Maria are of particular imagistic interest to Bellocchio, the actress’s uncaring reaction to her son’s impassioned rehearsal is perhaps his most wrenching vision of disconnect and rejection. The actress, of course, is hunkered inside her carapace of self-pity and divinity, and Huppert expertly conveys her impatience and selfishness with great subtlety without disregarding the essential element of real human grief.
The “what were you doing when…” conceit of Dormant Beauty, which was co-written by Bellocchio, Stefano Rulli, and Veronica Raimo, suggests a nostalgia and a veneer of social importance that the filmmaker shrewdly belies throughout. By essentially excising Eluana from the bulk of the narrative, allowing her and Italian parliament’s reaction to the removal of the feeding tube to solely form the backbone of the film, Bellocchio is able to boundlessly study the vulnerability that open communication engenders. Roberto’s ultimate rejection of Maria is due, at least partially, to his close, communicative relationship with his brother, whereas Huppert’s actress blames God’s perceived indifference to her tragic station on her inability to act devout and humble enough. Even Beffardi’s seemingly rote storyline is given stunning depth via a bathhouse-set conversation with a nameless psychiatrist (Roberto Herlitzka) about the sad existences of politicians as scared, flawed humans under superhuman scrutiny.
The tender heart at the center of all these stories, however, is expressed most clearly in Bellocchio’s quietest narrative strand, involving a doctor (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, the director’s son) and Rossa (Fabrice Scott), a patient who wants to commit suicide. Again, Bellocchio hulls out this familiar scenario and refocuses it as a parable of graceful simplicity, as the doctor refuses to either let her be expelled from the hospital or kill herself. If the film is a rather rousing expression of the great frustration and sadness of living under Berlusconi, it isn’t so in lieu of depicting the great strangeness of the individual, from Rohrwacher’s delicate believer to Herlizkaa’s wry, wise cynic. In granting a respectful gaze toward even the most seemingly reprehensible people, Bellocchio makes a bold yet genteel gesture toward those he criticizes, and does so without compromising his own beliefs. That he does so with the ease and emotional potency of the film’s sublime last sequence attests to Bellocchio’s technical mastery and formidable empathy.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 18—28.