Italy’s contentious debate over euthanasia forms the backdrop to Marco Bellocchio’s thought-provoking exploration of life, love and politics, “Dormant Beauty.” Set in 2009, when the country was wracked with infighting over the fate of comatose Eluana Englaro, the pic uses four stories to tease out debate on the sanctity of life. Itself the object of political wrangling, “Beauty” has numerous scenes of enormous power, though removing one unnecessary plot strand would allow deeper probing elsewhere. Controversy at home will help local biz, while the stimulating artistry should awaken arthouse interest.
Here’s the real backstory: Englaro’s father attempted to take her off life support once it was clear she’d never awake from a coma. Due to interference from conservative politicos and the Catholic Church, his request was denied, and only 17 years after Englaro entered a vegetative state did the courts grant her father the right to discontinue feeding. The ruling set off a political firestorm, with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party promoting a bill to force the hospital to put Englaro back on life support. With the president refusing to sign the decree, a constitutional crisis was narrowly averted when Englaro died in February 2009.
That was just the start for Bellocchio: Right-wing politicos in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region were so furious about the province’s film commission supporting “Dormant Beauty” with €150,000 ($190,000) that they closed the commission down and channeled the film funding portfolio to the region’s conservative-leaning tourist board. The irony is that the pic avoids judging either side, instead saving its caustic attacks for ethics-free, self-protective government types.
Some knowledge of the Englaro story is crucial, since the action is set over the course of her final days, and constant news streams keep abreast of every parliamentary move. Sen. Uliano Beffardi (Toni Servillo) shifted his political affiliations to the right, and is serving his first term in Berlusconi’s party. Now he’s planning to vote with his conscience against the anti-euthanasia bill, but party whip Luigi (Gigio Morra) works hard to convince him that loyalty is more important than integrity.
Beffardi’s devout daughter, Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), is on the other side. With memories of her own mother’s extended hospitalization still fresh, Maria’s beliefs in the sanctity of life are firm. Her attachment to other Catholic doctrines are more vague, especially when she meets Roberto (Michele Riondino) in the opposing protest camp, and the two start an affair.
Meanwhile, a famed French actress known here as “Divine Mother” (Isabelle Huppert) turned her house into a shrine-cum-hospital for comatose daughter Rosa. Fiercely chanting her Hail Marys, she’s so obsessed with catching God’s attention that she neglects her son (Brenno Placido) and her husband (Gian Marco Tognazzi). The last storyline sees Dr. Pallido (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) save drug addict Rossa (Maya Sansa) from self-annihilation.
Bellocchio states his pic isn’t neutral, but rather “non-ideological,” an accurate description for a work that expresses sympathy for all sides of the religious debate except when it becomes fanatical, as with the Divine Mother. Ever the actress, she’s unable to pass a mirror without glancing at her reflection, and Huppert’s intensity emphasizes the performance behind fulfilling religious duties.
Some may wonder if the drug-addict strand is necessary, though Rossa’s moving speech toward the end makes it worthwhile. The truly superfluous story involves Maria and Roberto, and especially Roberto’s disturbed brother, Pipino (Fabrizio Falco). Maria’s counterweight to her father is successful, but her instant romance with someone on the opposing side of the euthanasia debate merely illustrates the rather banal idea that love isn’t partisan.
Far more successful are the political scenes, which Bellocchio captures with his customary sharp eye for public bluster vs. private delusion. He’s certainly not neutral here, gleefully allowing Berlusconi and company to self-destruct via news footage. Stealing the show, however, even from the superb Servillo, is Roberto Herlitzka as a parliamentary psychiatrist, a Faustian figure of blase cynicism doling out antidepressants with weary inevitability. Scenes in the Senate sauna are some of Bellocchio’s most wickedly inspired.
D.p. Daniele Cipri once again proves his mettle, with richly supple camerawork and mature tonalities, while Bellocchio’s regular editor, Francesca Calvelli, effectively handles the intertwining stories. Marco Dentici’s production design is spot-on, from the sauna scenes to the opulent home of the Divine Mother, decorated with more roses than a funeral parlor. Few film composers can deliver sumptuous orchestrations as skillfully as Carlo Crivelli, and fewer helmers know as well as Bellocchio how to use them to further the mood within a scene, rather than to anticipate emotion.