With consummate artistry and the self-assurance that comes from experience, master helmer Marco Bellocchio continues to play with form and content with an originality that make younger directors look like they’re grasping at ephemeral straws. “Blood of My Blood,” a two-part film starting with the 17th-century story of a fallen nun and shifting to the same convent-prison locale today, fits neatly within Bellocchio’s method of incorporating family members and his home locale, weaving together social critique, perceptions of past and present, and welcome humor. It is not, however, a film that declares its intentions, which will perplex audiences not feeling equipped to follow every path and connection.
Precisely because of the film’s thematic richness, extremely Italian in its references yet securely universal in its philosophical understanding of stasis, renewal and decadence (in its traditional definition of cultural decline), the film will befuddle viewers, hampering chances for all but a small theatrical release offshore unless brave distributors find a way of convincing ticketbuyers that sometimes, full intellectual comprehension is less important than the lingering emotions that build long after the end credits. Critical reception at home is also likely to be uneven, though ironically, time may be the movie’s best friend.
Bobbio, the director’s hometown in the province of Emilia-Romagna and the setting for many of his pics, is the locale of the Santa Chiara (St. Clare) convent, where Sister Benedetta (Lidiya Liberman) is accused of associating with Satan. Her priest-lover killed himself, and his brother Federico (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) arrives hoping to persuade Father Cacciapuoti (Fausto Russo Alesi) that his late sibling deserves to be buried in consecrated ground. To do so, they must prove that Benedetta was influenced by the devil, which would make her lover’s sFather Cacciapuoti uicide an involuntary act for which his soul is not responsible.
The method of proof is via medieval “trials”: She’s pushed off a cliff to see if she sinks (innocent); berated to see if she cries (innocent); and finally, a trial by fire to see if the pain will make her confess. With the last trial, Cacciapuoti is convinced she’ll admit to demonic possession, and he sends Federico off with the reassurance his brother can have a proper burial. Meanwhile, Benedetta is walled up inside a tiny chamber in the convent.
Shift to the present, and regional tax inspector Federico Mai (again Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) knocks on the convent-prison door with wealthy Russian Ivan Rikalkov (Ivan Franek), who wants to buy the place. Caretaker Angelo (Bruno Cariello) is flummoxed, saying the building is abandoned and crumbling — certainly the state of the entrance. Upstairs, however, in the former cloistered apartments, lives Count Basta (Roberto Herlitzka), rumored to be a vampire, who’s secreted himself there for the last eight years and exits only at night to be driven through the streets of Bobbio.
Who is Count Basta, really? It’s helpful to know that “basta” means “enough” or “stop” (his isn’t the only meaningful name: “Mai” means “never,” and “Cacciapuoti” is an archaic word for “tax collector”). The Count has tried to stop time — sequestering himself in the convent with its antique furnishings, he holds onto the past, complaining about the town’s changes. He continues to observe Bobbio at night, watching people at restaurants and bars, knowing he can neither bring the town back to the past nor freeze the present, but for himself, with cranky good humor, he will hold on to the world he knew before the Internet, before globalization.
How this relates to the earlier nun story, apart from location, has to do with the passage of time. Bellocchio is making a sharp critique of the Catholic Church and a medieval way of thinking, but it’s too simplistic to say he’s condemning this past. The present, with its shysters (Mai isn’t really a tax inspector) and madmen (Filippo Timi in a small but memorable role as a manic local) isn’t a metaphysically happy place either. And yet, as the extraordinary, emotionally rewarding ending shows, time can be renewed in all the vigor and beauty of youth.
While the present characters are a complete Bellocchian invention, the past is drawn from the life of Marianna de Leyva, the famous 16th-century “nun of Monza” who was walled inside her convent for 13 years. There’s even a passing physical resemblance between Alesi’s Cacciapuoti and Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who ordered her trial. The story has been used many times in literature and cinema, the latter often for prurience or horror, but of course Bellocchio will have none of that, instead balancing critique with metaphor.
Does it matter that every alley he goes down isn’t signposted? Perhaps for some, but others willing to trust the maestro — knowing that the sentiments evoked will be enriched by future viewings — should allow themselves to accept the lack of simple explanations. Italos will immediately get the digs at the country’s notorious problem with tax avoidance, everyone can understand the harsh appraisal of the Church, and most will come away contemplating what we’ve lost and gained as the world continues to build walls between itself and the past.
As usual Bellocchio mines his previous films: He’s a true Balzac of cinema in how he creates an expansively creative tapestry, bringing in references from such movies as “The Eyes, the Mouth” and, more recently, “Sisters Never” (the sisters’ last name, like Federico’s, is Mai). Just as Bobbio recurs again and again even more palpably than Fellini’s Rimini or Olmi’s Lombard home, so, too, his repertory of actors — some from his own family and others, like Herlitzka, simply the best artists out there.
In his third collaboration with the director, d.p. Daniele Cipri (“Vincere”) creates a painterly world full of contrasts between dark interior and light exterior. Apart from a cardinal’s robe and Timi’s mismatched plaids, colors are restrained and unshowy, like the lensing itself. More attention-drawing is the music, a bit too forceful in the first half but then transforming into subtler compositions, partly guided by haunting choral works by Belgian composer Steven Kolacny.