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The Witch-Hunters And Bloodsuckers Are Still Among Us

Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio is back with Blood of My Blood, another complex, hard hitting look at sex, religion and repression, liberally spiced with lefty politics. Bellocchio rocketed to fame half a century ago as part of the thought provoking, groundbreaking generation of Italian filmmakers that included Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, a post-Neo-Realist Federico Fellini, Lina Wertmuller, etc. As I’ve previously written, back in 1965 Bellocchio received acclaim for Fists in the Pocket, a riveting look at epileptics. His 1967 China is Near daringly dealt with Maoism when this was a strictly taboo topic and Maoists loomed as a more militant alternative to the pro-Moscow official Communist Parties. The Italian director’s leftist bent was also evident in 2009’s Vincere, about the son of Mussolini and his mistress. Bellocchio was still pushing the proverbial envelope with Dormant Beauty – screened at 2013’s LA Film Festival, it sort of combined the searing look at sickness and no holds barred politics of his first two features with yet another forbidden subject: The right to die.

Blood of My Blood is an intellectual, complicated work that’s not easy to understand. This is because [Plot Spoiler Alert!] it is bifurcated, going back in time to what press notes say is 16th century Italy (actually, it seemed straight out of the Dark Ages), when the church ran amok, persecuting the populace willy-nilly with its extreme ignorance combined with brutality (always a fatal combination). This story of an attractive woman named Benedetta (Lidya Liberman) being tortured by Holy Mother(fucker!) Church’s grand inquisitors is set in a convent, where an even more bizarre, contemporary saga unfolds.

Jump cut about half a millennium and that convent is now the hideout of the vampire, Count Basta (Roberto Herlitzka, who appeared in some of Wertmuller’s 1970 films), who looks like a dapper if desiccated Christopher Lee meets Nosferatu, Italian-style. Only a filmmaker like Bellocchio would mix vampirism with references to social security, tax collecting, dentistry, the Soviet Union, Russian plutocrats and more. I had no idea what it meant but it was pretty amusing in a dry wit kind of a way.

It was also hard for this critic to understand the connections between the two tales, which took place 500 years apart. Aside from the convent, which plays key roles in both the 16th and 21st century-set stories, it was hard for this dimwitted Yank to understand exactly what the crafty Bellocchio was trying to express. Oh, you brainy Old World sophisticates, you!

The movie maestro’s cinematic style is, for the most part, as straightforward as the Dracula-like portion of Blood is a fantastic confabulation. But there are some excellent point-of-view shots from Benedetta’s perspective of the Edgar Allan Poe-type indignities and tortures she is forced to submit to by the church’s witch-hunters. When all is said and done, what is Benedetta’s crime she is being so reviled and made to suffer for? She is a young, attractive woman who can be sexual – and in one of the worst tropes of literature, theatre, opera, film, etc., a female who is sexual and (worse!) enjoys sex must be punished, often with death. (Think about it – few stereotypes are repeated more in the arts.)

Benedetta’s nudity and sensuality (which is probably what, literally, makes her so bewitching) actually seem to slay one of her religious oppressors. In the 21st century portion of the film Count Basta yearns for another youthful female beauty – not to suck her blood per se, but in a sexual, lusty, perhaps even romantic way.

Bellocchio’s title – he wrote and directed Blood of My Blood – may be a clue to what unites both stories and what it all means. The title suggests ancestral inheritance and perhaps his point is that modern Italy is haunted by the widespread misery inflicted by the church. The vampire may represent the notion that the repression, mind control, persecution, ignorance, et al, of the 16th century church is the living dead that still haunts us.

And not just in Italy. Look at some of the extremist Republican presidential candidates who, while denying global warming, advocate jihad against family planning and a form of theocratic rule that would send America back to the Dark Ages. Isn’t it a delicious sight to watch a pope who is now more on the progressive side of issues cause these religious reactionaries to squirm as they no longer have the imprimatur of “god” to hide behind as they seek to inflict themselves on women in particular and their rights to choose; for LGBT people to be accepted; and so on? With Pope Francis denouncing runaway capitalism and climate change it’s harder for these demented, deluded archconservatives to rationalize and justify their backwardness in the name of “god.”

I saw Blood the weekend that Trumbo – about another form of witch-hunting called the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood Blacklist – was released and as director Quentin Tarantino came under blistering attack for taking a stand against police excessive use of force. Methinks Marco Bellocchio would agree: The Torquemadas and blood suckers are still among us. Although I didn’t fully understand Blood of My Blood I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed this fertile filmic food for thought by a 76-year-old virtuoso who is still at it, stirring things up onscreen and recommend it for the more adventurous moviegoers out there in cinema-land.

For more info see: http://afifest.afi.com/2015/sections/T3537.

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Ed Rampell is a contributor to the new book on America’s former Poet Laureate “Conversations With W.S. Merwin” and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book“.

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