For D.C. locals especially: Take note of the Marco Bellocchio film series the Italian Cultural Institute is currently running with the National Gallery of Art. I had little idea of what to expect from Fists in Pockets (Pugni in Tasche), the opening film. I’d read that Bellocchio was highly regarded in Italy, a peer of Bertolucci and Pasolini and, like them, a member of the wave of filmmakers that immediately followed the neo-Realists. Fists in Pockets was his first feature film, he was only 26 in 1965 when he made it, and it’s remarkable. What begins as a pitiless rendering of an Italian bourgeois family, a tour de force in itself, is suddenly transformed, at more or less the sixtieth minute, into a tale of mythic proportion.
The film’s action revolves around Alessandro, the second son of landowners in Emilia-Romagna. He’s a lost soul, with no real job or occupation. (He’s played by Lou Castel, a Swedish actor. I would have never guessed he was Swedish if the audience hadn’t been told so by the presenters; in the family lineup he looked not at all out of place and easily passed as Northern Italian.) Though we never learn much about the farm or landholding or any of its workers, we see that Papa is deceased and eldest son Augusto shoulders the burden of the family finances and they are NOT GOOD. Most of the action takes place within the villa itself and its immediate surroundings. The villa is a hodgepodge of dark rooms crammed with ancestor portraits and heirlooms, and connected by shadowy hallways that end at closed doors. Adding to the ambient creepiness, the camera often peers through the frosted glass of these closed doors (indeed one even has supporting tape across its broken glass) as family members spy on one another. The claustrophobia is intense.
Alessandro suffers from a pent-up rage—hence the title—that drives the action. He can’t bear living with his family, and in that house, but has nowhere else to go. Other than his sporadic tutoring of a farm worker’s son and the feeding of the family’s rabbits he has no work and hasn’t a clue as to what kind of work he might eventually do. He’s attracted to his sister Giulia (maybe more than attracted, that’s not altogether clear), who in her turn shows signs of imbalance. She also has no idea of what to do with her life. Elder brother Augusto would like to marry his fiancée Lucia and move with her to an apartment in town but there’s not enough money for that. And not enough to place their blind mother in a nursing home, where she might get better care. Indeed! he exclaims—They don’t even have health insurance! Then too there’s the fourth and youngest child, intellectually disabled Leone, who must be continually monitored. And did I mention that both Alessandro and Leone suffer frequent epileptic attacks? This family’s fun.
Alessandro loves elder brother Augusto and wants to do right by him. He’d like Augusto to marry Lucia and live in freedom and the only way such a thing could happen would be for the rest of them to . . . uh . . . disappear. And so he takes matters into his own hands. Starting with their mother. (Because I don’t want to spoil the big sorpresa for anyone who might eventually see this film I won’t say what he does.) Anyway, that‘s just the beginning. We get to watch crazed Alessandro pull down the house and everything in it—pictures, carpets, furniture—and set a fire to it all in the courtyard, with Giulia at his side, laughing all the way, as Director Bellocchio trashes the tired pieties of bourgeois Italian life, beginning with Mamma and moving to Church and State. What happens at the end you can see for yourself. The Criterion Collection offers a DVD.
Should you harbor any doubts as to whether you actually want to find the DVD, you can consider this film a great introduction to the student rebellions of the late 1960s. For someone like myself, who’s thought a lot about the blessings and burdens of the nuclear family, Fists in Pockets was—especially at the ending where Lou Castel, in advance of an epileptic fit, sings and dances to the ravishing strains of La Traviata—cathartic. Bravo Bellocchio! I can’t wait to see more.
For a schedule of upcoming Bellocchio films: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/calendar/film-programs/bellocchio.html?pageNumber=1