Tuesday, November 07, 2006

2006 NEW ITALIAN CINEMA—Marco Bellocchio's I pugni in tasca / Fists in the Pocket

The Criterion Collection dvd release earlier this year of Marco Bellocchio's debut feature Fists in the Pocket / I pugni in tasca (1965, 105 mins.) engendered favorable critical response from a new generation of film commentarians 40 years after its provocative appearance, confirming the film has held up well over the years and still speaks to (and entertains) contemporary audiences. But whereas most folks will be seeing this film for the first time on their television screens, Bay Area audiences have the choice privilege of seeing it as it was meant to be seen: projected on the large screen, introduced by Bellocchio himself.

In Italy, Fists in the Pocket caused a ruckus when it premiered at the 1965 Locarno International Film Festival—41 right-of-center Christian Democrat politicians called for its ban as an offense against the Italian family—and the film proved equally memorable in San Francisco at the 10th San Francisco International Film Festival. It thrust the then-26-year-old Bellocchio into international prominence, establishing him—along with Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini—as one of his generation's most significant film-makers. "The great advantage of first films," Bellocchio has admitted, "is that you're nobody and have no history, so you have the freedom to risk everything." Bellocchio took that risk and his freedom proved frenetic, thrilling and enduring.

In her informative essay for the Criterion dvd release entitled "Ripped to Shreds" (in reference to film critic Paolo Mereghetti's description that Fists in the Pocket "ripped the collective film imagination to shreds"), Deborah Young does a good job of tracing the film's influences on Bellocchio's later work, implying that for some critics Fists in the Pocket remains Bellocchio's masterpiece, overshadowing his subsequent films, and—in the case of his young actor Lou Castel—typecasting Castel in similar roles for years afterwards. Castel himself admitted in a Senses of Cinema interview with David Pellecuer, that he became an "actor who's been too conditioned by his character."

Castel literally drops into the film like one of Heaven's expelled angels (one of the most memorable entrances of a new actor I've ever seen) and it's easy to understand how his breakout performance as Alessandro (variously nicknamed Ale and Sandrino) became difficult to surpass in later films. He's simply riveting. His sociopathy is spellbinding. You can't take your eyes off him. Most critics liken him unto a young Marlon Brando, though I'm prone to concur with James Kendrick of Qnetwork that "with his tightly centered, boyish features and prematurely receding hairline, he looks like no one so much as Neil Patrick Harris, which gives him an additional edge of the uncanny." The resemblance to Brando, however, seems to be thematically reinforced by Alessandro's incestuous relationship with his sister Guilia (Paola Pitagora) who—as Girish Shambu has noted—has insinuatingly taped a photo of the young Brando to her bedpost. Deborah Young furthers that Brando's presence, by way of this photo, makes it seem as if he's acting in the movie's ensemble.

In his recent Senses of Cinema essay on Fists in the Pocket, Karl Schoonover argues against the ready interpretation that the film exemplifies "a premonition of unrest." As he observes, "For many, this film stands as a prophetic parable whose images, such as the fists evoked by its title, register the pent-up frustrations of mid-60s youth in the West—a tension that would eventually lead to the mass political demonstrations of 1968." But rather than indulge this "safe concept of the '60s 'youthquake' Zeitgeist", Schoonover encourages the more interesting consideration that "we approach the film less as a barometer of an impending Zeitgeist and more as a dialectic with the past." He suggests that not only should we consider how the film "retaliates against postwar Italian film aesthetics (particularly neo-realism)" but also how it "engages and confronts history (particularly the persistent vestiges of fascist subjectivity in contemporary Italy)." By this approach, he more accurately captures the poignant spirit of Alessandro's anti-heroic nature. "Alessandro emerges, here, not as a herald of '68 but as a symptom of fascism's lasting and subtle hold on subjectivity" or, as Jessica Winter states it even more succinctly at The Village Voice, Alessandro is "meant to personify a nation's fascist hangover."

That's one political spin that can be applied to the movie. Another is more conflated with the psychology of the family. If any film promotes the psychological suspicion that bad parenting induces narcissistic wounds, this is the one. Not only is the father absent from this bourgeois family but the mother is blind. The children are left to seek affirmation in their own subjectivities and obsessive self-reflections. Alessandro and his sister Guilia hover hazardously in front of mirrors for longer than is probably healthy. Schoonover likewise offers that, as a national allegory, "the fatherless family may mirror the Mussolini-less Italy and its growing pains." Offering a maternal tweak to the allegory, Steven Carlson writes, "I see the matriarch of this dysfunctional family as representative of Bellocchio's perception of the Italian government, ancient and outdated and blind to the suffering of 'her' children; as such, her death is followed by Ale and his sister Giulia pitching and burning furniture, clothing and other such accoutrements (destruction of the old ways!)."

The claustrophobia of family—so wonderfully depicted again and again by Arturo Ripstein in his films—factors heavily in to Fists in the Pocket, and might indeed have the same shared Buñuelian source. Buñuel pulled no punches exploring what Schoonover describes as "the violence of upper-middle-class stagnation and the brutality of elitism." Michael Atkinson, formerly with the Village Voice, in turn describes Fists in the Pocket as a "family bell jar of sociopathy and funeral rites." The psychological toll inflicted by "the tedious tension of mandatory suppers, the taunting abuses of sibling hierarchies, and the weight of financial squabbles" (Schoonover) has damaged each and every one of the adult children in this constrictive household. The Christian Democrat accusation that Fists in the Pocket maligns the nuclear family chafes against Bellocchio's supposition that "the dominant mode of familial relations [has become] useless, outmoded and even dangerous."

Perhaps its most dangerous exponent is Alessandro's quiet and seemingly "functional" older brother Augusto (chillingly portrayed by Marino Masé whose stunning good looks incriminate desire in his siblings). His decision to move away from the family household to set up an apartment in the city with his fiancé initiates the chain of events that propels the story forward. The jealous sabotage of his incestuous siblings stress their commitment to keeping the nuclear family together at whatever cost, including death, which Augusto capitalizes upon and exploits. His apparent frustration with dealing with his family's dysfunction—so mired it would, as Tim Knight wryly notes, "give the Borgias pause"—motivates Alessandro to misguidedly act on Augusto's behalf. To a certain extent Augusto can be seen as manipulating the dysfunction of his siblings for his own benefit. As Lou Castel himself later assessed, even though Bellocchio did not discuss the political meanings of the film with his cast, they became apparent in the process. Castel figured out "the capitalism metaphor: the sick branches are cut, the cynicism of speculation, the logic of the economic system and its ruthless operation", all of which Augusto represents. A blind mother, two younger brothers afflicted with epilepsy, and an emotionally-stunted sister personify the "sick branches" Augusto must prune in order to achieve a respectable life. His sport of shooting rats at night by way of the car's headlights prefigures this ambition.

Illness as existential plight is important to this film, much as in Tsai Ming-Liang's films. As David Pellecuer noted to Lou Castel, Alessandro's "crisis" in the final scene seemed to "somatize all the tensions and traumas accumulated during the film." Schoonover reminds us that "a fit of epilepsy is often called a crisi epilettica in Italian. Thus, for the Italian ear the word 'crisis' carries a double valence, connoting not only a political, social, or moral predicament, such as crisi finanziaria or crisi d'identità, but also a traumatically somatic episode." Thus, Schoonover concludes, the film's central gesture is not so much the title's fist but the epileptic fit. "We might do well to question a political aesthetic built upon the allegorization of the disabled body," he writes. Moreover, at the time of the film's release, Bellocchio remarked, "Film sometimes needs symbols, and to me epilepsy meant all the frustration, all the troubles and weaknesses often found in the young."

Acquarello synopsizes it best at Strictly Film School: "Bellocchio presents moral desolation and psychological fracture through the manifestation of physical disability (an involuntary metastasis similarly incorporated in Bruno Dumont's Life of Jesus and Tsai Ming-liang's The River), in order to provide an allegorical examination of the intrinsic corruption and perverting nature of fascism's inherently isolative, centralized authority."

All of this implicates the film as being overbearingly serious but, to its credit, what makes Fists in the Pocket enduringly charming and entertaining is precisely its perfectly-pitched sardonic humor. In some ways it reminded me of Harold Prince's Something For Everyone with a touch of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema. Though here the incestuous shenanigans are not so much introduced by an outsider as they are implicated from within. Paola Pitagora's performance of Guilia, in this light, comes off as a pathetic figure, not unlike the whore passed off from elder brother to younger. Her final triumph is to consciously permit death by doing nothing at all.

Speaking of Pasolini, Deborah Young quotes his famous remark that "in contrast to Bertolucci's 'cinema of poetry,' Bellocchio's films represent a 'cinema of prose' in which the style—the camera work and editing—is not foregrounded; the film language is transparent, and what counts is the content." Girish Shambu contests this "pat and clean" dichotomy by insisting that—though Fists in the Pocket is "raw and rancid"—it is no less poetic "than the bits of torn newspaper floating preciously in the wind in the opening shot of La Commare Secca. Poetry comes in many flavors, tones and colors; not all of them taste sweet, sound lyrical or look beautiful." He nudges comparisons even further by noting Bertolucci's theory "that the difference between his films and Bellocchio's might have something to do with their hometowns. Bertolucci is from Parma (elegant, refined, aestheticized) and Bellocchio from Piacenza (hard-edged, enshrouded in grim weather)."

Finally, mention must be made of Alberto Marrama's crisp black-and-white cinematography which pays studied homage to the nouvelle vague (and which I anticipate experiencing on the big screen). Also, Ennio Morricone's "modern, mocking score" (Young) lends an atmosphere of mental disquiet with its "ringing bells and atonal cacophonies."

Fists in the Pocket will be shown on Monday, November 13, 9:30 pm, Embarcadero Cinemas.

Cross-posted at Twitch.


Brian Darr said...

I was really hoping to catch this on the big screen, but now I had to commit to another activity at that time and now I'm bummed. If you have any more Italian Cinema recs let be sure to let us know, though!

Michael Guillen said...

Ah, sorry you're going to miss this, Brian. I ended up liking it much more than I was anticipating. It's rare that I want to follow up on a screener with an on screen projection.