“Fists in the Pocket” director Marco Bellocchio has long woven elements of autobiography into his work, threading personal themes of siblings, madness and suicide through his most intimate films. Far less apparent until now was how the maestro sublimated himself behind the fiction, using cinema to address such elements on screen so as to avoid processing them on a consciously verbal level. With “Marx Can Wait,” he mixes up that pattern, delivering a frank and revealing documentary about his family — and most especially himself — that centers on his twin brother Camillo, who committed suicide in 1968. Straightforward in concept yet psychologically profound, the film draws the audience in with a lingering sadness made more potent by the director’s clear yet unspoken sense of guilt.
The catalyst was a 2016 reunion of the surviving Bellocchio siblings in their Emilian hometown of Piacenza. Whether planned beforehand or not, the event gave the director the opportunity to involve his brothers and sisters in a discussion about their childhood, but more specifically about Camillo, recalled at the start as “an angel” whose intense, unaddressed melancholy led him to hang himself when he was 29. The Bellocchios were a solid middle-class family, their father a lawyer, their mother a devout woman whose consuming fear of hellfire is a source of laughter now but clearly had its effect on the children.
Paolo, the oldest, was mentally unbalanced, his frequent screams a source of anxiety that their parents never thought to protect them from (Bellocchio’s 1980 film “A Leap in the Dark” contains a figure based on Paolo). Marco and Camillo were born toward the end of 1939, joining older brothers and sisters who are seen now recalling Camillo’s delicacy as a child. The boy grew up to be their father’s favorite, though as so often happens, that didn’t mean Camillo’s wishes were catered to — in fact, quite the opposite. Though ill-suited to a technical vocation, he was pushed into becoming a surveyor, which was considered a far more practical profession than Piergiorgio’s intellectual pursuits and Marco’s cinematic ones.
As the careers of Piergiorgio (founder of the leftist journal “Quaderni piacentini”) and Marco began to take off, Camillo felt ever more inadequate, and while the family recognized his deep unhappiness, it was considered a trait rather than a pathology. Perhaps because Camillo was the best looking of the group, the one who delighted in high-spirited pranks, those around him allowed his golden-boy surface to discount the darkness inside. Of those interviewed, only his girlfriend’s sister Giovanna Capra seems to have been aware of the depths of Camillo’s emotional turmoil, her unflinching, clear-eyed remarks providing some of the documentary’s most insightful commentary.
Brother Alberto mentions Camillo’s identity crisis, but curiously no one explores what that might have entailed, nor what part of this crisis apart from a lack of vocation (which is not an identity) would have led him to kill himself during the 1968 Christmas holiday. The retelling of that event by the family who were there is heartbreaking, as are Marco’s attempts to explain to his adult children Elena and Pier Giorgio what happened. It’s often believed that twins share a special bond, some kind of unspoken understanding, yet clearly that wasn’t the case with Marco and Camillo, and by adulthood they were moving in very different circles. By the late 1960s, the director was processing his newfound celebrity and latching on to the political upheavals of the era, so much so that he can’t recall his brother’s letters and clearly hadn’t been paying attention to Camillo’s depression.
As he rationalizes all this to his children, their faces reflecting what audiences are sure to interpret as disturbed skepticism at their father’s unsatisfying explanation, it becomes clear that Marco is unable to verbalize his sense of guilt at ignoring his twin’s mental anguish. It would be easy to castigate him for this, but the documentary itself is his way of addressing his inadequacy. Listening to him, we hear half-hearted excuses, but watching, we realize that Camillo’s suicide and Marco’s self-involvement at the time remain major sources of guilt in his psychological state. This isn’t a confession: He’s seeking not absolution but self-understanding, realizing however that such elusive knowledge won’t relieve his remorse or provide satisfaction.
The film’s title comes from a line Camillo himself said, in response to the director’s leftist crusades. As Giovanna Capra painfully reminds him, in 1968 Marco was so obsessed with helping the proletariat rise up against injustice that he ignored his own brother’s cry for help; it was that realization that led Camillo to say, “Marx can wait,” a rebuke so sharp that Bellocchio used it in his 1982 feature “The Eyes, the Mouth.”
Unlike his films “Sisters” and “Sisters Never,” which were also family affairs, this is pure documentary, incorporating family photographs, home movies and historic footage together with scenes of the siblings speaking with Marco and talking with each other. Memories occasionally, inevitably contradict each other, but the sad core of Camillo’s bright yet troubled existence remains unchallenged, even if the anxieties he faced remain somewhat murky.