The sanctity of life is one of the thorniest subjects of the 20th century, and seems certain to continue to be so for decades to come. One only has to look over the continuing debate in terms of contraception and abortion, among the most divisive and emotional issues in American politics (or, indeed, in politics around the world), to see that. And just as the question of when life begins is much argued over, the question of when it should be ended, and what constitutes the difference between life and death, is just as controversial.
And it’s been in the headlines plenty in recent years. In the U.K., stroke survivor Tony Nicklinson, who’d suffered from locked-in syndrome for seven years, went before the courts to argue for his right to die, which was denied (he passed away a few weeks later from pneumonia). Seven years ago, the case of Terri Schiavo, who’d been in a vegetative state since 1990, dominated headlines as politicians wrangled over whether her husband’s decision to have her life support shut off should be allowed. Italy was divided in 2008 and 2009 by the case of Eluana Englaro, and it’s this that serves as the backdrop for “Dormant Beauty,” the latest from Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio (“Vincere”).
Englaro was 22 when a car accident put her in a permanent vegetative state, and having told her father that she wouldn’t want to live like that, he fought in court for 17 years for her right to die, eventually causing a constitutional crisis in Italy when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attempted to change the law to keep her alive, only for the President to refuse to sign it. It’s against the last few days of Eluana’s life that Bellocchio sets his film, with a large cast of characters whose situations reflect, directly or indirectly, Englaro’s.
Politician Uliano Beffardi (Toni Servillo) is the closest to the case: a member of Berlusconi’s party, he’s set to break with his colleagues and side with the President in the crucial vote, thanks to his own experiences with his terminally ill wife. Even so, he’s going against the wishes of his religious daughter Maria (Alba Rohrwacher). She goes to Ulina to pray for Englaro, but en route, meets Roberto (Michele Riondino), who’s accompanying his bipolar brother to protest for the other side. The two fall in love, but face obstacles beyond their differing viewpoints.
Meanwhile, an unnamed woman (Divine Mother in the credits, which is a little on the nose…) played by veteran actress (Isabelle Huppert) retreats further and further into religion thanks to her own vegetative daughter, causing friction with her teenage son (Brenno Placido), himself an aspiring actor, who thinks they should let his sister die. Finally, Dr. Pallido (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) attempts to save a suicidal junkie (Maya Sansa), against the advice of his colleagues.
It’s an unwieldy number of storylines to struggle through, and we found it a little hard to engage with the film due to the way that Bellocchio structures it. Often, he’ll focus closely, with only a handful of cutaways, on one storyline in particular for 15-20 minutes. As a result, major characters are barely touched on or introduced until a good 40 minutes into the film, and for some time, you question why some of them have been included at all.
For the most part, however, the director does tie them together neatly at the end, with most paying off nicely in a thematic sense (though we’re not sure about the romance between Maria and Roberto—it seems to be from a different film entirely—and the Huppert section ends a little abruptly).
Bellocchio mostly argues that one should always fight for life, even when someone wants to die, but also doesn’t judge those who believe the opposite, like Uliano, who took matters into his own hands with his wife. The film doesn’t really have anything new to add to the debate (and doesn’t always engage with the thornier aspects of it), but there’s real humanity and tenderness in the way that it says it.
Less successful are the satirical elements that come with the political section. This part drew big laughs from the Italian section of the press corps, so maybe it plays better with the home crowd, but much of it felt a little toothless and safe, hitting low-hanging fruit because it knew it’d get a response. There’s a more savage picture to be made about this subject matter, but it’s certainly not Bellocchio's film.
Still, that’s fair enough, and the film’s well-written, beautifully performed (not least from Huppert, who’s typically stunning as her icy, grief-stricken matriarch, and the moving Servillo, of “Il Divo” and “Gomorrah” fame), and nicely made, if a good 15 minutes overlong. But we couldn’t help but feel, given how controversial it proved in advance (politicians cut the entire budget of the Friuli Venezia Giulia Film Commission, who partially backed the project, entirely because of the film), that it should've been willing to go a little closer to the edge. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2012 Venice Film Festival.