The Must-See Films of Marco Bellocchio

The Italian film director Marco Bellocchio, born in November, 1939, is still going strong. That strength is apparent in his new documentary, “Marx Can Wait,” which opens at IFC on Friday. Also showing are his two earliest features, “Fists in the Pocket” (1965), which remains every bit as combat-ready as its title suggests, and “China Is Near” (1967)—not easy to see on the big screen, as is often the case with Bellocchio’s movies, so catch it while you can.

“Marx Can Wait” begins with a table being laid for a family gathering. Bellocchio is in attendance, together with a roster of his relatives, including his four surviving siblings: Letizia, Piergiorgio, Maria Luisa, and Alberto. It is a convivial occasion, with glasses raised in a toast, and such bonhomie, to anyone versed in Bellocchio’s work, is a kind of surprising joke; no director has done more to calibrate family tensions, and to stretch them to a snapping point. Dinner time, in “Fists in the Pocket,” was like a ticking bomb, and the hero—if you could call him that—argued that his older brother would find life so much easier if the rest of the household could just die.

The principal protagonist of the documentary, Camillo, is conspicuous by his absence from the feast. He was Marco’s twin, born three hours later, and he killed himself at the age of twenty-nine. In a notably good-looking clan, he was the most handsome, as is evident from a wealth of home-movie footage, though he was also overcast by what Alberto describes as a “veil of melancholy.” It is in still images, not moving ones, that the veil is most clearly visible. Like many documentarians, Bellocchio is alive to the potency of old photographs, as they stop the flow of imagery in its tracks.

“Marx Can Wait” does not presume to solve the mystery of the suicide at its heart; as if any solution can be sufficient, or might mollify the grief of the bereaved. What we get, instead, is a scattering of circumstantial clues. There was Paolo, for instance, another sibling, ten years older than the twins, whom Marco refers to as “il pazzo”—the lunatic, in the bald words of the subtitles. Paolo used to scream, laugh, and talk aloud to himself, and it was the gentle Camillo who was chosen to sleep in Paolo’s room. Never, apparently, did he complain about doing so. When does submissiveness cease to be charitable, one wants to ask, and start to become achingly ingrown?

That period of the children’s lives is illustrated, in the documentary, by a clip from one of Bellocchio’s later features, “A Leap in the Dark” (1980). We see a Paolo-like figure shouting in the half-darkness, “Why was I born?,” while the younger ones, in their nightshirts, clutch their heads and try to block out the uproar. It’s a distressing scene, and the dismay is sharpened as we realize just how intently Bellocchio is rifling through his own past, unearthing and transmuting pieces of pain. If you want to discover how far he would go with this autobiographical alchemy, watch “The Eyes, the Mouth” (1982), in which the main character—played by Lou Castel, who had starred in “Fists in the Pocket”—returns home after his twin brother has taken his own life. At one startling point, the survivor even dresses up as the deceased, with a fake bullet hole in his temple, in order to console his credulous mother, who worries that the ghost of her son may not find peace.

Whether creative candor of this extreme variety seems excessive, cruel, brave, or frightening is up to you. What’s amazing is that the results rarely come across as depressing or drab; my spirits were more thoroughly dampened by the most recent “Matrix” movie, say, than they were by “Marx Can Wait.” Bellocchio deals in the deeply personal yet somehow not in the private; there is a vital robustness to his methods, and the new film, despite facing intractable problems from long ago (“in terms of affection, it was a desert,” we learn of the family), feels sociable and even touched with laughter. There is a lovely conversation between Bellocchio, ever the unbeliever, and a Jesuit priest, who declares, “I consider you, strangely, as a great apologist for faith,” much to the director’s delight. A quick cut then takes us to a moment of howling blasphemy from “My Mother’s Smile” (2002)—akin, it is suggested, to the forsaken cry of Jesus on the cross. Not for Bellocchio a blithe dismissal of religious belief as an obvious and antiquated folly, unworthy of our consideration. Instead, he commits to a lifelong wrestle with the creed in which he was enfolded as a child.

A similar honesty can be found in Bellocchio’s political engagement. Here, you realize, is that most uncommon of creatures: the artist who likes to pick a fight with himself. Take the title of the latest film. We have heard the phrase before, in “The Eyes, the Mouth,” in which the hero remembers telling his brother to read “Capital” and getting a curt reply: “Marx can wait.” The documentary confirms—guess what—that this exchange is based on a real recollection, and strengthens our sense that what we are witnessing here is a difficult admission of guilt. Imagine Marco, a brilliant young man, already forging his way in the world, and addressing the radical means by which that world could and should be changed. As if any of that were of use to poor Camillo, the less talented twin, with the faraway gaze in his eyes, who was unable to find a job that interested him, and who needed not rebellion but love. There is a harrowing aptness in the fact that he gave up his life in the insurrectionary year of 1968.

The career of Marco Bellocchio has been extensive, fertile, and constantly capable of taking us unawares. (I recommend “Vincere,” from 2009, which tells the bitter tale of the woman who fell for the young Benito Mussolini, bore him a child, and was locked away for her pains.) His manner is restless and impatient, full of stop-start rhythms, and of characters who coil themselves up in rumination and then, without warning, lash out or lunge across the frame. All of which, to my mind, means that here is the ideal person to film Stendhal. We already have “The Charterhouse of Parma,” which was updated in lively and thrusting style by Bellocchio’s contemporary Bernardo Bertolucci, in “Before the Revolution,” released a year earlier than “Fists in the Pocket.” But what of “The Red and the Black,” whose hero is schooled in a seminary and yet despises the church in which he seeks advancement? Who is at once thrilled and undone by carnal desire, and whose lust for social upheaval finds him stashing a secret portrait of Napoleon in his mattress? Pure Bellocchio, surely. Someone should give him fifty million dollars and tell him to get on with it. After all, he’s only eighty-two years old. Marx can wait, but Stendhal really can’t. The time is now. ♦

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