In a year when Italo directors have thrown themselves into adapting famous historical novels to the screen (“Elective Affinities,” “Marianna Ucria,” “The Truce”), Marco Bellocchio has faithfully transcribed Heinrich von Kleist’s last play, “The Prince of Homburg,” into a classy psychological drama played out in reverberating dream imagery. Pic should have strong appeal for a limited circle of literary and film fans, who can admire a fine cast doing a splendid job with the play’s formal dialogue.
As in all his recent films, Bellocchio is deeply interested in exploring the angst and contradictions of the human psyche, and on this level, “Homburg” is his most pulled-together movie in years. But his disinterest in commenting on other aspects of the play, particularly its cheer for the Prussian military spirit, is likely to curtail pic’s relevance for contemporary audiences, who are used to having their Shakespeare and Jane Austen served politically up-to-date.
The story, set in the 17th century, is compactly told in film’s brief running time. The hotheaded young Prince of Homburg (Andrea Di Stefano) defeats the Swedish invaders on the field in a daring attack, but in doing so disobeys orders from his commander and mentor, the Grand Elector of Brandenburg (Toni Bertorelli).
Arguing that his protege is a danger to the army, despite his victory, the Elector condemns him to death. The Prince is so terrified of dying that he begs for mercy, but when it is granted he changes his mind and decides he deserves the firing squad for his disobedience. Satisfied that the Prince has matured, the Elector pardons him and gives him the hand of his niece, Natalia (Barbora Bobulova).
Written in a patriotic mood as a call to arms against Napoleon, von Kleist’s 1811 work exalts heroism, duty and the fighting spirit. Today it strikes a particularly unfortunate note, as its message is that German soldiers should follow orders if they want to win wars. (Modern stage performances of “Homburg” have been dogged by the ghost of WWII and Nazi ideology.) When invited to compete at Berlin this year, Bellocchio and his producer/son Piergiorgio Bellocchio mentioned the film’s German setting as one reason they were declining — and they may have been right.
Given Bellocchio’s earlier films, like the sarcastic anti-army “Marcia Trionfale,” one would have expected him to be heavily ironic about Prussian officers in full military regalia, fighting senseless battles and bickering over honor. But nothing appears further from his intentions here, as he plays straight the young aristo’s climactic “illumination” that to be a noble hero requires submitting to the most inane military discipline.
That said, “The Prince of Homburg” is a multilayered drama and an intriguing psychological study about how accepting “the law of the father” turns a boy into a man. Familiar Bellocchio themes of rationality and everyday madness, youthful passion and rebellion, and father-son conflict are all laid out. The dreamy, fairy-tale atmosphere that envelops the film situates the story on psychological rather than realistic or historical terrain.
Pic is packed with original Kleistian dialogue like “Oh, what a splendid breakthrough!” and “Quick, we must follow him,” which the top-flight cast miraculously naturalizes. Also very stagy is the evolution of Homburg, who goes from being an exasperating dreamer and embarrassing lover to a naive, impetuous officer; then mutates into a crawling worm to save his skin; then snaps out of his cowardice and becomes even more exasperating as a stubborn, kill-me-I’m-ready hero.
It’s a tough role, but earnest newcomer Di Stefano contorts his way through it with an intense, expressive perf. As his tender young love, Natalia, Bobulova (a Slovak stage thesp who learned Italian for the part) is staggeringly good at creating a strong, courageous hook for confused viewers to peg some modern values on.
Even the big bad disciplinarian, the Grand Elector, wins audience sympathy in Bertorelli’s commanding perf, calmly showing that authority has its reasons for acting inhumanely. The bevy of officers (notably Fabio Camilli and Bruno Corazzari) who flank Homburg and stand by him in his hour of need are upliftingly noble.
Pic vaunts some classy technical work that makes it a pleasure to look at. Emphasizing the film’s fairy-tale quality, lenser Giuseppe Lanci shoots the opening and closing sequences in a moonlit garden with velvety filters and metaphysically symmetrical compositions. Costume designer Francesca Sartori dresses everyone as toy soldiers and princesses, a style that works well with Giantito Burchiellaro’s spare, essential sets, where lighting plays a bigger role than furniture.
Bellocchio regular Carlo Crivelli opts for a classical score that blends into the background. Editor Francesca Calvelli gives Bellocchio’s script rhythm without surplus.