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One of the Left's Greatest Film Directors

Bellocchio Versus the Barbarians

by LOUIS PROYECT

From April sixteenth to May seventh, the Museum of Modern Art is presenting a retrospective of the work of Italian director Marco Bellocchio, one of the great film directors of the Italian left. As with Bertolucci, Pasolini, Visconti and Pontecorvo, Bellocchio’s films are intensely political as well as artistic triumphs. Born in 1939, Bellochio, a friend of Pasolini, joined the Maoist Union of Italian Communists (Marxist–Leninist) in 1968, a sect whose newspaper bore the title popular in those circles: “Serve the People”. His motto would ultimately be “Serve the Audience”.

Bellocchio was always far more interested in human drama than propaganda. Made one year before he joined the Maoists, the narrative film “China is Near” is anything but propaganda if you take Pauline Kael at her word (and who wouldn’t?). She describes the film’s Maoist anti-hero Camillo, who is committed to sabotaging his older brother’s campaign for municipal office on the Socialist Party ticket, as a “prissy, sneering despot” and “a seventeen-year-old seminary student turned Maoist who looks the way Edward Albee might look in a drawing by David Levine.” The film derives its title from graffiti scrawled by Camillo on the walls near his brother’s campaign HQ.

If you have access to Hulu Plus, I recommend a look at “Fists in the Pocket”, Bellocchio’s debut film. Made in 1965 when he was only 26, it is deeply influenced by Godard and Buñuel. Like “China is Near”, the film is about a family at war but the story has only a tangential relationship to Italian society. Living in a decrepit villa in the Italian Alps, a blind matriarch has four grown children living under the same roof with her. A good Catholic, she tries to maintain her sanity in the face of nonstop quarrels, often turning violent, and tearful reconciliations among her troubled brood. The oldest son is the only one gainfully employed, while his younger sister and two younger brothers spend their days alternating between juvenile pranks and coping with the epileptic seizures that run in the family. Alessandro, one of the younger brothers, has the devilish soul and self-loathing of a Karamazov brother. He plots to kill his mother, himself and his two other epileptic siblings in order to allow the oldest brother to live a normal life. I should add that this is a comedy and a very good one at that.

Some critics try to draw political meaning out of the film after the fashion of a Rorschach blot test. Youtube commentator Joel Bocko deems Alessandro a fascist and his older “normal” brother his enabler, just as the Italian middle-class enabled Mussolini. Other critics saw it as foreshadowing the student revolt that would kick in a couple of years later. Bellocchio himself endorsed this interpretation by saying, “The anger that turns into the murder of a mother and brother was very much in sync with the times and with the things that were exploding and about to explode.”

PUGNI IN TASCA, I

Scene from “Fists in the Pocket.”

In my view, the film is much more about the tensions that exist in all families but drawn to a black comedic extreme. As Tolstoy said in the epigraph to “Anna Karenina”, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Starting in the late 70s and becoming more pronounced throughout the 80s and 90s, Bellocchio turned away from radicalism in art and in politics. His films became much more about the psyche than about the class struggle, reflecting to some extent his marathon sessions on the psychoanalyst’s sofa. Probably, it had just as much to do with the implosion of the Italian left that mirrored what was happening in the rest of the world.

In an interview with Film Quarterly in the fall of 1989, Bellocchio tried to explain his ideological and artistic trajectory in answer to a question about how he now viewed films such as “Fists in the Pocket” and “China is Near”:

Well, they belong to a personal historical phase that is of course not repeatable. Things have changed a great deal from those days, personal things as well as society and no on. That type of protest is really not possible any longer. And that’s not just because I’m twenty years older, but because society itself has changed. The basic thing is not to have that attitude that so many people had then, the attitude of resignation, of acceptance. Sometimes people say that if you deal with madness and things like that, you’re just trying to hide from reality. No, this society is a society that I simply don’t like, but nowadays any kind of attack against it has to be indirect. It can’t be frontal any longer, but requires the discovery of the reasons that that earlier type of revolution failed. For example, in Italy the terrorists, like the Maoists, were applying certain theories which were partly positive, but which didn’t take social and psychological reality into account. Consequently, it became a religion, something that came from the outside, in a certain sense, thinking very simplistically for example that things would change if the economic relations changed. That’s why capitalism won to easily.

That was pretty much my take on things about the same thing.

While no longer the Maoist enragé or Buñueleque bad boy, Bellocchio remained focused on the social problems of Italy. The films become increasingly engaged with religious and ethical questions that are often posed as paradoxes defying easy solutions. One such crowning masterpiece is the 2002 “My Mother’s Smile” (available on Netflix streaming), whose main character, a successful artist and atheist named Ernesto Picciafuocco—an obvious stand-in for Bellocchio himself, is dismayed to learn that his late mother has been put forward for canonization. Evoking “Fists in the Pocket”, she has been murdered by Ernesto’s brother who now exists in a catatonic state in a mental hospital.

The film begins with Ernesto’s young son talking to himself in his estranged wife’s garden. She asks him whom he is talking to. He replies that it is God, who since he is everywhere, will never leave him alone. Ernesto tells his ex that this what happens when you put him in religious classes at school.

When he goes to the school to meet with the religion teacher, he is startled to discover that “she is not ugly” as he tells the winsome young blond woman openly. This is the beginning of an affair with a woman who is not everything she appears to be.

Much of the film consists of satirical commentary on the canonization process and the opportunist attitude of members of the Picciafuocco clan, most of whose members see sainthood as opening up possibilities for TV interviews and professional advancement.

Skipping ahead to 2004, “Good Morning, Night” (available as a DVD from Netflix) is a statement about the lunacy that helped destroy the Italian left. It is a dramatization of the Red Brigade kidnapping and execution of former Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978. Most of the action takes place in the spacious apartment where Moro was held captive. A young couple, Red Brigade militants, had rented the apartment and prepared a concealed cell for Moro’s captivity. Much of the film consists of long takes of the terrorists discussing strategy, or one or another of them debating politics and ethics with Moro, who Bollocchio represents as a decent and reasonable human being in contrast to the fanatics who hoped to exchange him for their imprisoned comrades.

There is no doubt that Bellocchio identified with Moro in light of his decision two years later to run for Parliament as a candidate of the Rose in the Fist, an electoral coalition of the Democratic Socialists and the Radical Party, two groups that had long ago forsaken any connection to socialism or radicalism. To give Moro his due, the Red Brigade would have been far more successful (not that there was ever any good reason to kidnap or execute bourgeois politicians) if it had picked someone like Berlusconi instead. The Wikipedia article on Moro described him as a social reformer who as Prime Minister pushed through legislation such as one that “extended compulsory health insurance to retired farmers, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers, and extended health insurance to the unemployed in receipt of unemployment benefits.” We should only be so lucky to see such politicians in office anywhere in Europe today. Apparently what made the Red Brigades determined to kidnap him was the decision made by the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party to form a coalition government, an ultraleftist’s worst nightmare.

In any case, this was Bellocchio’s first and last foray into electoral politics, although the question of ballot box opportunism continued to interest him, especially the rise of the ultimate opportunist Benito Mussolini, whose success as a Socialist Party parliamentarian paved the way for his assumption of dictatorial power.

Made in 2009 and available as a Netflix DVD, Marco Bellochio’s “Vincere” is a biopic about Mussolini’s affair with Ida Dalser who was locked up in a mental hospital after making herself inconvenient to the dictator with demands that he marry her and care for their son Albino. With her total and consuming devotion to Mussolini, as well as that of her son who also ends up in a mental hospital, you almost feel that the fascists had grounds for confining her. Of course, the entire country was somewhat detached from reality under fascist rule so there is some basis for looking at the “sick” and the “healthy” in the same terms as Philippe de Broca’s “King of Hearts”.

During the time that Dalser and Mussolini are intimate, you get a stunning portrait of Il Duce’s sleazy character. Starting out as a socialist, he capitulates to war fever at the outset of the war and makes fiery speeches about the nation having to redeem itself in battle before advancing toward socialism. Unlike the French and German socialist parliamentarians, Mussolini’s nationalism morphs into something far more toxic.

Dalser worships Mussolini and sells her business in order to help him get a fascist newspaper off the ground. She appears less motivated by ideology than by hero worship, however. When her idol breaks with her, her tenuous hold on reality begins to fade. As a symbol of the Italian nation, she is a useful reminder of how sexism facilitates authoritarian government in a country that never fully completed a bourgeois revolution. It is the same kind of subordination to male authority and charisma that was on display under Berlusconi. Not surprisingly, Berlusconi once described the fascist dictator as a “good leader”.

When asked about comparisons between Mussolini and Berlusconi by the Huffington Post , Bellocchio replied:

This idea of talking directly to the people and this idea of a direct relationship with great masses of people, he described that as if it was a blessing that the people gave him–as if he were directly appointed by the people. That component is something that is very similar between Mussolini and Berlusconi, even though there are significant differences between the two. But Berlusconi does mention the people all the time, and the fact that the majority of the Italian people support him, he uses that as a backing to give him the right to pass whatever kinds of measures he wants to pass–sidestepping parliamentary democracy.

With all due respect to Bellocchio, the idea of a “direct relationship” between a ruler and the ruled has a very long history in the USA, with Mussolini’s contemporary FDR being just one of many notable examples. We can also expect more and more of it as the economic vice squeezes the American people and come to think of it the Russian people as well. Putin’s hyper-masculinity does have a rather 1930s aura.

This survey concludes with a look at Bellocchio’s latest, “Dormant Beauty”, that opens in theaters nationwide in June. Like “Honey”, the other Italian export that showed recently, the film deals with the conflict over the state and the Catholic Church on one side and humanity on the other over the right to terminate a life that is on death’s doorstep.

While “Honey” dealt with the conflict between a professional euthanasia administrator and the man who hired her despite having no terminal illness over his right to suicide, “Dormant Beauty” is about Italy’s version of the Terri Schiavo case. With his wife in a brain-dead coma, Schiavo’s husband sought to take her off life-support.

In Italy, a young woman named Eluana Englaro became contested territory after an automobile accident in 1992 also left her brain-dead and on life-support. Her father sought to allow her to die, while politicians and the Catholic hierarchy were determined to keep her “alive”. The Englaro story in “Dormant Beauty” is accompanied by a fictional counterpart—another young woman being kept alive in the mansion of her mother, a famous and wealthy film actress in utter thrall to Catholic dogma and the vain hope that her daughter can recover (the mother is played most powerfully by Isabelle Huppert).

Once again we have a stand-in for the director in the character Uliano Beffardi, a legislator in his seventies who supports the right of Englaro’s father to terminate his daughter’s hopeless existence. Like the artist in “My Mother’s Smile”, he is an atheist and a humanist.

Finally, in another parallel tale, we have a doctor caring for a young heroin addict who has slashed her wrists. Played by Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, the director’s son, the doctor essentially takes the same stand as the young woman in “Honey”–trying to persuade someone determined to die that suicide is not the answer.

In one of the film’s most powerful moments, there is a long take of the doctor and the addict arguing about matters of life and death, having all the dimensions of a philosophical dialogue. This is Bellocchio at his best, allowing his characters the breathing room to speak as human beings do in intense situations—at length. Unlike most commercial films, particularly those churned out by Hollywood, the classic European art films typically tend to include long takes, sometimes lasting 10 or 15 minutes. One can imagine Harvey Weinstein screaming at Bellocchio to cut the scene down to 2 minutes or so.

I attended a screening of “Dormant Beauty” at MOMA on the opening night of the retrospective and heard from Marco Bellocchio, his son and Maya Sansa, the actress who played the heroin addict. Most interesting and somewhat depressing to me was the film distributor’s frank admission that the market for foreign films was drying up. Bellocchio became a filmmaker in 1965, just at the time when some of the greatest “foreign” films were premiering one week after another. (What is really foreign to me is a Judd Apatow comedy.) Just as the young Marco Bellocchio was throwing caution to the wind and making something like “Fists in the Pocket”, people from my generation had the great privilege of seeing a new film by Antonioni, Fellini, Kurosawa, Buñuel or Ray opening one week or another. Let’s try to create a new “market” for great art by making it to the MOMA or by renting a Bellocchio film from Hulu Plus or Netflix. The men in suits who control what we watch must be reminded that a shred of civilization still exists in an age when the barbarians are at the gate.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.