Film: Famiglia feelings

Marco Bellocchio was the angry young man of Italian cinema. Chris Darke reviews his landmark `Fists in the Pocket', now re-released
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In contemporary film, depicting family life as dysfunctional is de rigueur. Marco Bellocchio's 1965 landmark Fists in the Pocket reminds us that home was always where the hate is but Bellocchio magnifies the claustrophobia within his provincial Italian family to the point where family becomes a microcosm of society.

Bellocchio was the angry young man of Sixties Italian cinema. He says: "I told myself that I had to make a personal effort to make this film, so I produced it myself with family money. I shot it at my parents house which is in the region where I was bought up. In a way it was a wonderful position to be in. I was completely free to take all manner of risks in making the film. I had nothing to lose."

It is significant that many of the greatest Italian film-makers share such intimate and ambiguous relationships with their home turf - Bertolucci with the Po valley, Antonioni with the city of Ferrarra and Bellocchio with his home town of Piacenza. These were films of youth that desired the violent clarification of domesticity as stultifying, full of hypocrisy and conformism, and that extended this emotional analysis to society at large.

The distinctiveness of Bellocchio's approach lay in his taking mental affliction, in this case epilepsy, and figuring it as symbolic of the self-immolating rage and frustration that the dysfunctional family breeds in the bone.

The family of Fists in the Pocket live in a sprawling villa near a small Italian town. The mother is blind and her four children are troubled, to put it mildly. Augusto (Marino Mase) is alone among them in having some of the trappings of conventional life - a job, a fiancee and the desire to leave home. His three siblings are epileptics, clinging to one another with destructive passion.

Allessandro (Lou Castel), who has a quasi-incestuous relationship with his sister Giulia (Paola Pitagora), decides to help his brother in his desire to get on in life by the most immediate means available - killing the rest of his family. He dispenses successively with his mother and his brother Leone but in doing so traumatises his sister who becomes bedridden after an epileptic attack.

One wonders whether, today, Bellocchio's admittedly metaphorical use of a clinical condition such as epilepsy would be considered tasteless and excessive. Bellocchio says: "Epilepsy allowed me to show something that could be immediately dramatised. But its only value was as a pretext. What I wanted to show in this film was the condition of adolescence."

Allessandro, the central figure of the film, thus becomes a sufferer of youth as petit mal which is set against the grand mal of socialisation into a world he's both drawn to and which is bound to reject him: adolescence as time-honoured illness, in short.

When the film was released it scandalised Italian opinion and 41 members of the Christian Democrat Party called for it to be banned as an offence against the family. "The film was unexpected at the time," explains Bellocchio.

"There was a tradition of neo-realist cinema in which one could confront social problems but without really getting to the heart of the family. For Italy, the film's confrontation with the situation of the bourgeois family was something completely new, as was the way that it dealt with the issue of madness."

Bellocchio, who was born in 1939 and studied film at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome and the Slade School of Fine Art in London, announced a combination of elements that would dominate the young Italian cinema of the Sixties and influence European film. Psyche, family and state would become related in terms of youthful frustration and revolt that would come to characterise the febrile, tense atmosphere of the era.

In Italy, directors such as Bellocchio, Bertolucci and Liliana Caviani (of Nightporter fame) would anguish over their parents' accommodation with fascism while searching. politically and psychologically, for release from such bondage. One can see the influence on European cinema of this approach continue throughout the Sixties and Seventies.

How does Bellocchio feel now about the intense emotions he dealt with in Fists in the Pocket ?

"It's changed. There was a side of me back then that wanted to destroy everything but I risked destroying myself. But my attitude towards hypocrisy and conformism remains absolutely the same. My sense of opposition at that time was one full of rage, but today it's a matter of finding another way of dealing with it."