Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio (“The Traitor”) is set to reconstruct the true-life drama of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy kidnapped and converted to Catholicism in 1858. It’s a story that Steven Spielberg was in advanced stages to bring to the screen a few years ago.
Mortara was a young Jewish boy living in Bologna, Italy, who in 1858, after being secretly baptized, was forcibly taken from his family to be raised as a Christian. His parents’ struggle to free their son became part of a larger political battle that pitted the papacy against forces of democracy and Italian unification. Mortara went on to become a priest in the Augustinian order.
Unlike Spielberg — who announced his Mortara drama in 2014 based on a book by U.S. academic David Kertzer — Bellocchio is basing his pic, titled “La conversione” (“The Conversion”), on first-hand documents. Spielberg’s project reportedly lost steam after he was unable to find the right child actor to play the young Jewish boy.
Bellocchio, who is Italy’s most prominent veteran director, is penning “The Conversion” in tandem with Italian writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli. Nicchiarelli is a biopic specialist, having written and helmed “Nico, 1988,” about the late German chanteuse who sang with the Velvet Underground, and “Miss Marx,” her portrait of Karl Marx’s ill-fated younger daughter Eleanor that launched last year from Venice. Both pics were meticulously researched. Bellocchio and Nicchiarelli are working with an Italian historian and have access to diaries, court records, and other Mortara materials.
Italian production companies RAI Cinema, Beppe Caschetto’s IBC and Simone Gattoni’s Kavac Film, the team behind “The Traitor” — which Sony Pictures Classics released in the U.S. — are mounting “The Conversion” similarly as a high-end international co-production. Talks are underway with several prospective partners.
“Marco Bellocchio’s take on such a complex historical narrative will be that of an artist with an agnostic approach,” RAI Cinema chief Paolo Del Brocco told Variety.
“What he’s interested in is the mystery of conversion, which originates in a terrible violence perpetrated towards a child. A violence that is due to religious fanaticism based on the idea that in the name of religion you can do anything,” Del Brocco added.
RAI Cinema, which is pubcaster RAI’s film arm and the lead outfit behind “The Conversion,” has made it its mission to enable Italy’s top auteurs to bring their visions to the screen through high-end projects with international heft such as “The Traitor” and Matteo Garrone’s “Pinocchio.”
The plan is for Bellocchio to start shooting “The Conversion” in the spring of 2022 in Bologna, Rome, and other Italian and European locations. Though casting details are premature, actors are expected to be both Italian and international.
Besides Mortara, the main characters in “The Conversion” will be his parents, who tried in vain to get their son back; the child’s brother, Riccardo, with whom he enters in conflict; Pope Pius IX; and Dominican inquisitor Gaetano Feletti.
Bellocchio’s vast body of work is known for bringing the complexities of Italian history, and hypocrisy, to the big screen in films such as “The Religion Hour,” in which he took on the Church; “Good Morning, Night,” about the 1978 kidnapping of Italian premier Aldo Moro; and “Vincere,” which depicts Benito Mussolini’s secret wife and illegitimate son.