Director Marco Bellocchio returns to his unconventional roots with "The Religion Hour," a densely textured, intensely personal drama about a confirmed atheist confronted with lingering ties to the Church. The film's attacks on the cynicism and hypocrisy surrounding Catholicism promise a degree of controversy and debate.

After two classical dramas that followed a string of numbing psychoanalytical works, director Marco Bellocchio returns to his challenging, unconventional roots with “The Religion Hour,” a densely textured, intensely personal drama about a confirmed atheist confronted with lingering ties to the Church. In Italy, the film’s barbed attacks on the cynicism and hypocrisy surrounding Catholicism promise a degree of controversy and debate. But far from the Vatican walls, this enigmatic mix of naturalistic solemnity laced with symbolism and with frequent, often frustrating digressions into theatrical, grotesque or surreal territory, will resonate less, probably confining its audience to the filmmaker’s existing devotees. Following its Italian bow April 19, pic premieres internationally in competition at Cannes next month.

Many of the themes touched on here resurface from earlier Bellocchio films — matricide, insanity, blasphemy, the power of the Church, the passive acceptance of religious dogma and the sinister, secretive underbelly of family life. Along with the director’s secular sympathies for the central character, they work to imbue the drama with autobiographical weight.

Ernesto (Sergio Castellitto) is an established artist separated from his wife (Jacqueline Lustig) but still extremely attached to their young son, Leonardo (Alberto Mondini). In a beautifully gauged, unsettling scene that conveys Ernesto’s disdain for the Church, he receives a visit from a clerical emissary (Bruno Cariello), summoning him to an audience with a cardinal (Maurizio Donadoni).

Ernesto’s discomfort grows when he learns the purpose of the interview: to involve him in his family’s bid for the canonization of his mother. The pious but unaffectionate woman was killed by Ernesto’s mentally unstable brother (Donato Placido) after her repeated attempts to stop him from blaspheming.

The shock of discovering his family has been quietly moving ahead for three years with these proceedings is compounded when Ernesto becomes aware that each one hopes to gain something from the beatification, including his ex-wife, who sees it as an investment for Leonardo’s future. One amusing encounter, in particular, in which Ernesto’s cynically pragmatic aunt (Piera Degli Esposti) outlines the potential upside of making his mother a saint, has the savage bite of vintage Bellocchio.

The drama’s primary concern is tracing the conflict sparked in Ernesto by the revelation of his family’s scheme. This relates to his estrangement from religion and his resistance to forces trying to draw him into the beatification campaign; and to his integrity as an artist, compromised by illustration work he carries out for a publisher he despises.

Most of all, it unleashes profound self-examination of Ernesto’s role as a husband, lover, son and father, the latter intensified as Leonardo’s religious studies at school prompt questions about God and faith.

Enhancing the underlying tone of a borderline-horror nightmare, Bellocchio makes frequent departures from the sober drama into more fanciful, perplexing areas that strain the film’s coherency: a Fellini-meets-Lynch-like literary-religious gathering, an aborted duel with a monarchist count, the artist’s encounters with Leonardo’s mysterious would-be religion teacher.

In the central role, Castellitto’s powerfully focused performance manages to keep the complex drama grounded. Actor builds a fascinating portrait of a man pushed into a hallucinatory state, wrestling between doubts and the determination of his own convictions, rendering vivid and accessible a journey that’s largely interior.

Cinematographer Pasquale Mari’s brooding chiaroscuro treatment gives the film the arresting, somewhat forbidding look of a Caravaggio painting, while the rich soundtrack of somber hymn-like music, a frequently used, haunting traditional Armenian vocal and grave-sounding strings underlines the drama’s dark spirituality.

The Religion Hour (My Mother's Smile)

Competition / Italy

Production

An Istituto Luce release of a Filmalbatros/RAI Cinema production, with participation of Telepiu. (International sales: RAI Trade, Rome.) Produced by Marco Bellocchio, Sergio Pelone. Directed, written by Marco Bellocchio.

Crew

Camera (color), Pasquale Mari; editor, Francesca Calvelli; music, Riccardo Giagni; production designer, Marco Dentici; costume designer, Sergio Ballo; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Maurizio Argentieri; assistant director, Daniela Ceselli; casting, Beatrice Kruger. Reviewed at Anica screening room, Rome, April 8, 2002. (In Cannes Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Ernesto - Sergio Castellitto
Irene - Jacqueline Lustig
Diana - Chiara Conti
Leonardo - Alberto Mondini
Filippo Argenti - Gianni Schicchi
Cardinal Piumini - Maurizio Donadoni
Ettore - Gigio Alberti
With: Bruno Cariello, Renzo Rossi, Piera Degli Esposti, Donato Placido, Gianfelice Imparato, Pietro De Silva, Toni Bertorelli.

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