There’s not much room for ambivalence when you’re dealing with a subject as controversial and emotive as assisted dying, or the right to life. It’s enough of a challenge for any filmmaker to even present a balanced view of all the different arguments surrounding the issue without treating the matter in an overly academic way.
The consideration of just one case can be a complex issue that polarises feelings and challenges beliefs even within the family of the person concerned. The last thing you want to do is bring religion and politics into the matter, but those aspects can’t be ignored either; particularly in a country like Italy. Yet delving into such contentuous issues is exactly what Marco Bellocchio does best, and his distinctive approach to the subject in his latest film DORMANT BEAUTY (Bella addormentata) demonstrates why he is still probably the most important filmmaker in Italy today.
Bellocchio’s response to this recent and still topical subject is more direct than his recent poetic excursions into reverie…
At the centre of DORMANT BEAUTY is the real-life case of Eluana Englaro, a young woman who spent 17 years in a vegetative state following a car accident in 1992. Her case caused a major constitutional and religious crisis in Italy in 2009, when her father fought a legal battle to permit the switching off of her life-support system. Bellocchio’s response to this recent and still topical subject is necessarily more direct than his recent poetic excursions into reverie, in the transformation of Benito Mussolini from left-wing rabble-rousing militant to the Fascist leader of Italy in VINCERE (2009) or his similarly abstract contemplation of the death of Aldo Moro, the Italian politician and statesman kidnapped and murdered in 1978 by members of the terrorist Red Brigade in his film BUONGIORNO NOTTE (2003). In order to deal with the specifics of the case while at the same time avoiding any intrusion into the personal grief of Eluana’s family, Bellocchio approaches the subject here from multiple viewpoints, using a number of fictional cases and invented characters. Some of the cases are only tangental to the main story, but together they create a greater sense of what exactly is at stake here.
The thread most directly connected to the real-life incident deals with a senator (Toni Servillo) who is being pressurised by his party to vote on Eluana Englaro’s case in parliament in a way that challenges his own beliefs. He must choose whether to follow the political line or hold to his personal convictions, and his daughter Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), still resentful over the nature of her own mother’s death in similar circumstances, is infuriated by his indecision. In a separate but connected storyline, Maria travels to the hospital in Udine where a vigil is being held for Eluana, at the same time as the matter is being debated in parliament. The vigil has attracted both supporters and opponents, each sides equally fervent and outspoken in their beliefs about the right to live and the right to die. During the media frenzy outside the hospital, Maria meets and falls in love with a boy after a clash with his aggressive and threatening brother.
Bellocchio handles the interweaving of the each of the issues masterfully, each one giving the other resonance …
Less directly connected, a famous actress (Isabelle Huppert) feels the heightened public interest in the case. She has given up her career to look after her comatose daughter, who is being prayed over and cared for by nuns at her luxurious apartment. Her dedication to her daughter is respected by her husband, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree with it (although his personal view isn’t made entirely explicit), but it is violently opposed by her son, also an actor. In an entirely separate case – although the newsworthy event is of course a topic of debate everywhere, particularly among doctors – Rossa (Maya Sansa) is a drug addict who has attempted to take her own life and is being closely monitored in hospital by a doctor who has made it his personal responsibility to rehabilitate her. He’s got quite a challenge on his hands.
As does Marco Bellocchio. Not only do each of these separate stories need to be treated with scrupulous sensitivity for the issues concerned, but a weakness in even one area alone could potentially undermine the intent and the balance of the whole film. A need for even-handedness and impartiality also risks making the film detached and academic, and any kind of ambivalence would prove fatal to such a controversial subject. Bellocchio handles the interweaving of the each of the issues masterfully, each one giving the other resonance and wider significance. You might think that the director places more weight or emphasis behind one side or the other, but that’s more likely to be your own personal reaction to the issues the film is dealing with and that’s exactly the response the film ought to be eliciting.
… love, as Climie Fisher once told us, changes everything …
In reality the film itself is much less easy to pigeonhole. Bellochio’s response to the matters of life and death is a profoundly humanistic one, and as such he recognises respectfully that other personal, political and religious views exist. The single most telling response is the resolution to the least relevant storyline in the entire film – Maria’s love story. There would appear to be far more important matters debated in the frantic few days leading up to the Eluana Englaro’s death, and some diverse opinions and views are heatedly exchanged along the way. For Maria, one significant event in the past is now viewed in an entirely new light simply due to the fact that she has fallen in love in the meantime, and love, as Climie Fisher once told us, changes everything. You can debate the rights and wrongs of the Eluano Englaro case according to philosophical, legal, moral, religious or political convictions, but this is the one factor that is much more difficult to account for; and yet it is the most important one of all. It’s a measure of Bellocchio’s considerate and contemplative approach to the subject and his brilliance as a filmmaker.