Marco Bellocchio is always welcome in Cannes. The Italian maestro first landed a film in the Cannes FIlm Festival’s competition lineup back in 1980 with A Leap in the Dark and has been back regularly over the past two decades: in 1984 with Henry IV, 1987 for The Prince of Homburg, 1999 for The Nanny, 2002 for My Mother’s Smile, 2009 with Vincere, and 2019 with The Traitor. In 2021, the French festival gave him an honorary Palme d’Or for lifetime achievement.
Bellocchio’s latest feature, marking his eighth time in the Cannes competition is Kidnapping. Set in 1858, the film traces the true story of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy in Bologna who was secretly baptized by his nurse as a baby, transforming his fate. Back then, papal law for territories on the Italian peninsula under the direct rule of the Pope required all baptized children, regardless of their religious heritage, to receive a Catholic education. When the boy turned seven, he was seized by the Pope’s soldiers and raised by the Church. But the boy’s family, with the support of public opinion and the international Jewish community, fight to get their child back.
In an interview with Concita De Gregorio, editor-in-chief of THR Roma, Bellocchio discussed American creatives who considered making the film, his personal evolution from being a member of the pro-Maoist China group Union of Italian Communists (Marxist-Leninist) and making politically militant cinema to today, his family and more.
What aspect of this story attracted you to it, as a director?
Well, I didn’t spend too much time investigating [my motives] but when I read about this kidnapping, I read about Edgardo Mortara, I also read that an illustrious colleague, Steven Spielberg, wanted to do this story. And then, mysteriously he didn’t want to do it anymore. But, without investigating or analyzing too much, there must have been something in it that spoke to me.
Have you ever thought about how Spielberg would have made it?
I think it’s a film that needed to be done in the Italian language. It needed Italy. Someone told me that maybe Spielberg felt it would be difficult to get to know Italy, and maybe that’s why he put it aside. And it wasn’t just Spielberg. Julian Schnabel also told me he wanted to do this project. Evidently, some problems came up. We had many problems, too, but at a certain point, we found enough money to be able to do it, thanks also to the tax credit [in Italy], which helped a lot.
This is a story of God, a mother, and a son. This trinity, the God — whichever religion it is — the mother and the son, stays with the viewer from the beginning to the end.
There’s a mother who absolutely wants to defend her son’s Jewish heritage and his religion their God. There there is the Catholic God. And then this brutal event, taking the child away and bringing him to Rome to re-educate him. The sense, the meaning, the path of this child, who was re-educated and converted — the working title of the film was The Conversion — is of someone who accepts his fate in order to survive. But there is a moment at the center of the film in which he tries, through his own imagination, to attempt to reconcile the two religions. He tries to remove the nails from Christ precisely to reconcile the two religions, precisely to return to his origins, to return to his mother. The most powerful figure for the child is the mother. Because the father, deep down, would be willing, if it meant seeing his child again, to accept some sort of compromise with the Catholic Church. The mother, absolutely not.
When the child is kidnapped, he immediately seems to accept the new religion, this new father, because there are no mothers. However, in writing the script with Susanna Nicchiarelli, we have sudden outbursts, from the child and the teenager, which reveal he’s not so peaceful.
An example, taken from Edgardo Mortara’s biography, which he doesn’t explain but I show in the film, is the moment when the adolescent, the young man, the young seminarian, out of excessive love for the Pope, almost knocks him over. The Pope punishes him in a rather atrocious way. There is still something in him that has definitively not been extinguished.
Does he risk knocking him over or does he want to knock him over?
He wants to! We enter into an area we know well, in which there are no certainties, but I wanted to represent him with a very strong ambiguity. During the film, he has an awakening, there’s a rebel in him. While visiting his father, he is docile, cold. With his mother instead, he returns to something like the affection of the earlier scenes. He rebels, and then he looks for a type of childlike reconciliation.
There is that scene between the two brothers at Porta Pia, which is also a very hard and beautiful scene, of a dialogue between two brothers who know each other but don’t understand each other. How about you and your brothers?
Well, my brothers… it’s been a long time now… Let’s say that there is a secular part that made me move away. I came to Rome, I had my experiences. But with my brother Pier Giorgio, who died last year and then I presented his beautiful book, “Diario del Novecento” with him, in terms of ideas, in terms of choices, there was strong compatibility. Even though his life was more the life of someone who retired in a small provincial town and remained there, a strong disassociation between life and thought.
Is there a connection, or an echo, in the dialogue I heard between the two brothers about religion, about having a God or not having a God. What was it like for your generation, having political faith or not having it?
You could say, in a twisted way, that maybe I was, for certain periods… I wouldn’t say a fanatic, but a person of faith, so more of an Edgardo, while Riccardo was more (like my brother) Pier Giorgio … He said once referring both to my brief militancy in the communist union, Maoism, and afterwards referring to my research, which was complex and cannot be mentioned in a few words about the collective analysis of Massimo Fagioli (the Italian psychotherapist best known for his “Human Birth Theory” that aims to define roots and causes of mental illness), that it was a form of radicality in which life and thought, life and art, tended to be together to seek a unity… I then progressively separated myself from it. Although I don’t disown it, I chose my own freedom. But in a certain sense, your question is right, my experience for many years gravitated around radical choices, more than what Pier Giorgio’s did. Alberto made a more reformist choice, socialism, and the other brother, Tonino, was more of a radical but he became a magistrate.
And how many brothers are there?
In the case of Mortara, there are nine. We were eight.
Does the family return to having a central importance in life, as it happens in the film, and as it seems to have happened to you through your retelling of Marx?
Yes, yes, it was central. Clearly, for all my life, and I carry the marks from it… you have captured the point perfectly. The family, the games is something that in a different way we did too, as children. We also played hide and seek … These were games in which we were all involved, maybe there were also our neighbors, and we played because there was no television yet, we played in that time because we had dinner quite early, before going to bed. I also found some paintings about this, from the 1800s, even games referenced by psychiatry, the game of peek-a-boo, hiding, uncovering, the blindfold from a famous painting by Goya… This is linked to my childhood, yes, it actually is.
There is always this great theme of hiding and seeing oneself, a theme that seems recurrent to me in at least all your most recent films, but perhaps even the first ones. It is this blind spot thing: things happen but come from a blind spot, so you don’t see them coming. You only see them when they are already there...
Yes, the blind spot strikes me, or the blind point, I don’t know… It’s a concept, that sudden blindness in which a tragedy can happen.
I’ll ask you a very personal question: does that also have to do with the death of your brother?
Well, the death of my brother, yes, but subconsciously in the sense that, yes, it’s a blind spot, not having seen it coming… Of course, this is a concept that can be extended, but it’s the theme of blindness, the theme of having seen something but not having realized that a tragedy was about to happen which would be irreparable… it has to do with that, yes. Ours is a job where you arrive on the set in the morning and you say, “what are we doing today?” So far, my reactions have always been active reactions, not of renunciation, not of giving up… If you have a bad actor in a scene, you can say, “oh well”… No, you have to try to do something, to stir him… I’ve always had this attitude since a film set is really like real life, there are human beings around you.
You have a way of showing, even in less political films, Italy as it is and also as it could have been, if it had made a different choice at a certain point. Is this fact that things did not go as they could have, a conflict for you?
The fact is that I never accepted the inexorability of history. History went a certain way… Without betraying it too much I looked for not so much for a counterbalance but for movements of contrast, of rebellion. Here (in this film) there’s a child who suddenly stirs up reality…
Is even death ineluctable?
Death, I think, is ineluctable. (laughs)
I always say, I know it’s a cliché, to use the time you have wisely. So far I’ve been helped by luck, I’m lucky to still have a certain… mental vitality, also a certain health.
All the political commitment, the militancy, all the energy that you have spent, that your generation has spent has led to this Italy. What is your sentiment when comparing expectations with reality?
Well, the expectations were quite… religious, quite… a beautiful, generous utopia. But I have never fallen into the delirium, or subversion, of a catastrophe from which a new society would be reborn. No, neither did my brother. We bordered on a strong left radicalism, but I have to say that I watch with more interest, even though I know very well that I’m more of an observer in a world where … there are signs of catastrophe, real ones. In politics, too. However, I also see an army of young people who seem to me to be unwilling, not resigned, to tolerate it.
Then, of course, it strikes me, there’s been a lot of talk these days about artificial intelligence. But it’s as if the creators themselves, as in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, are realizing that this machine can lead to inhumanity. I can only observe, performing my duty, my job…
You have to control the machine, you cannot be controlled by the machine…
No, you have to govern it. However, the impression is that the great political class, in all these things that happen, tries to put the brakes on it, but there isn’t yet a new idea on how.
Could you have imagined, when the great adversary was the Christian Democratic Party, that we would end up being governed by a right-wing party?
No, I didn’t, but… it’s not their fault, it’s our fault, in a way. Having said that, there is also the manipulation of people’s conscience, there are people voting out of anger, or despair, without understanding anything… but, like all right-wing parties, once they are in power, they try to be more moderate. It’s always like that. But it is the left, or the opposition, that has to get something back, or regenerate something that is dead, or find something different to oppose the right-wing.
What are you watching these days?
Not so much… Did you see (Netflix’s Korean drama) The Glory? I think it’s the last one I’ve seen. Always about revenge, nothing new… But I was struck by the form, which was not a frenetic narrative form, based on frenzy, it was actually directed very attractively, but it might be a losing one.
Interview edited for length and clarity.