Sunday, September 24, 2006

Fists in His Pocket

Things get heavy with Alessandro (Lou Castel) and his sister Giulia (Paola Pitagora) in Bellocchio's Fists in His Pocket.

I must have started this film three times over the past few weeks. It's definitely worth watching, but I found it confusing at first, because it throws a lot of information at you in the very first scene, maybe more than a film by a more polished director would. That actually becomes part of its charm, though, because Marco Bellocchio's dazzling 1965 debut is one of utter abandon. It's made with the kind of nervy ambition and true first-film movie fever you see in Welles and Godard and Scorsese; that sense of do-or-die, of swinging for the bleachers, of here's-your-chance-don't-blow-it. It was wildly provocative for its time and to a degree still is, because you never know which way the story will lurch.

It's a Gothic tragi-comedy about a dying-on-the-vine Italian family that seems like some mid-1960s version of the House of Usher. The father is long gone, the widowed matriarch is deeply religious and blind -- get it? -- the eldest son and sole breadwinner, Augusto, is self-centered and bitter about his siblings and it's not hard to see why: his two younger brothers, Alessandro and Leone, are epileptic; the former is having an affair with his fetching sister Giulia, and the latter is mentally retarded. These people aren't the idle rich, but they are definitely the idle middle-class decadent, and everyone seems to exist to torture everyone else; their family dinners tend to boil over with slap fights and tantrums. As our protagonist Alessandro sees it, Augusto is the only person who has any chance of getting free; on his behalf, and with Augusto's cynical, unspoken acceptance, Alessandro decides to wipe out the family, and mostly succeeds.

I can only guess that the title refers to frustration; the impotent rage of balling up your fists and hiding them, of being on the verge of striking someone but also holding back. Bellocchio himself held back little, as the film is intended as a frontal assault on all that conventional society holds dear. Bellocchio isn't totally on Alessandro's side, exactly, but -- if I can borrow a thought from Bernardo Bertolucci, interviewed on one of the DVD extras -- he seems to understand him as Dostoevsky understood Raskolnikov. He's the most tormented of serial killers, living in the hell that is other people.

Lou Castel gives a wildly unhinged improv performance as Alessandro and Paola Pitagora has that kind of great goofy beautiful face that was just made for black and white. Speaking of which, it is also beautifully, crisply photographed by Alberto Marrama -- apparently the only theatrical release he's ever done -- fluidly edited by Silvano Agosti and Anita Cacciolati, and has a typically evocative, dirge-like score by Ennio Morrocone. It isn't, however, quite the great film I always hoped it would be since I first heard of it years ago; for all its virtues it's also patchy and thrown-together, emotive and shrill, and overwhelmed by its own reckless energy. To watch it is to see the great last gasp of Italian Neo-Realism at its dirtiest, but not at it's most emotional or tender or angry. It has fiery Italian blood in its veins, but no real heart. More of an anguished but hollow scream, not unlike Alessandro's when he's rolling around on the floor.

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