Such good surface manners, such inner madness. After Dormant Beauty’s comparably staid network narrative, Blood of My Blood’s unclassifiable, almost reality-defying mix of religious drama, supernatural fantasy, and whimsical comedy comes as surprise from filmmaker Marco Bellocchio. But the film is hardly the kind of outlandish phantasmagoria Federico Fellini regularly indulged in from 8½ onward. Bellocchio’s brand of crazy, at least here, is a more subtle accumulation of askew details so confounding that one can’t help but be drawn in simply to see how it all adds up, if at all.
Blood of My Blood is divided into two parts, set during different time periods, with the only connection between them an ancient convent prison in the rural Italian town of Bobbio and a character named Federico Mai. The Federico (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) of the 17th-century-set first half is the twin brother of a man who’s just killed himself, with the brother’s lover, Sister Benedetta (Lidiya Liberman), accused of consorting with the devil and tempting him to his self-induced fate. The intrigue of this first half revolves around Federico’s attempts, aided by Father Cacciapuoti (Fausto Russo Alesi), to get Benedetta to confess, in order for his brother to be buried in holy ground instead of a “donkey cemetery.” But while most of the medieval trials which Father Cacciapuoti and the rest of the Catholic clergy put her through suggest she is, in fact, innocent of demon possession, Federico suddenly begins to find himself acting strangely under her influence.
The film then jumps ahead to the present day, with Federico (still played by Pier Giorgio) now a tax inspector who visits the now-crumbling prison with a wealthy Russian, Ivan Rikalkov (Ivan Franek), who’s interested in buying the property. But Federico isn’t the focus of the film’s second half, which centers around Count Basta (Roberto Herlitzka), an elderly man some believe to be a vampire who’s holed up in the prison for the past eight years, refusing to go out except for occasional exploratory drives at night. The question of whether he will stick to his antiquated guns or relent and sell the property to Federico and Rikalkov generates much of this second half’s suspense.
On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much to tie Blood of My Blood’s two halves together. But there are some striking thematic correspondences. Federico’s behavior under Benedetta’s influence—which at one point includes his sleeping with his two Catholic hosts (Alba Rohrwacher and Federica Fracassi) in the same bed—suggests a sexual liberation that threatens to topple long-held Catholic morals. If Benedetta’s actions imply a forward-thinking sense of freedom, Count Basta represents a polar-opposite stance: He’s so desperate to hold onto the past that he’s willing to sequester himself from the modern world, shacking himself up in the attic of the convent prison surrounded by antiquities, and for as long as possible.
Bellocchio’s aesthetics reflect this conversation between past and present in imaginative ways. Darkly lit interiors dominate the cinematography in the first half; by comparison, the images of the second half, especially in the exterior shots of the prison, are more colorful, at times garishly so. Bellocchio’s cleverest evocation of this past/present dialectic, however, lies in his use of music. At one point during the first half, a mournful choral arrangement of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” is heard on the soundtrack, offering a surreal touch of modernity to the historical proceedings; Carlo Crivelli’s classical orchestral score dominates the present-day second half, however, offering its own counterpoint to the neon lights and smartphone screens Count Basta sees when he goes on the town. Both parts converge in an unexpectedly affecting double epilogue that, in a figurative sense, sees one character freed from the prison of antiquated ways of thinking, and another character entering that same prison through death by a ray of sunlight.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 17—24.