The Executioner: By the Neck By David Cairns
Designing for del Toro By Eric Skillman
Made in 1965 and still considered by many to be Marco Bellocchio’s masterpiece, Fists in the Pocket foreshadows the years of student protest in a family tragedy bordering on horror. This seminal first feature catapulted the twenty-six-year-old Bellocchio to fame and introduced a controversial director who, along with Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini, would become a leading cultural figure for a generation of Italians. Fists in the Pocket is one of the reasons people still remember Italian cinema as a great and powerful force.
“The great advantage of first films,” Bellocchio has said, “is that you’re nobody and have no history, so you have the freedom to risk everything.” Daring in the extreme, Fists in the Pocket describes a young provincial man’s annihilating rage—the very title implies pent-up teenage anger and resentment—encompasses matricide, fratricide, and incest, mocks the institutions of church and family, and generally raises hell. It dropped like a bomb on the quiet world of mid-sixties Italian cinema, still under the spell of a humanistic, postwar neorealism. Radical and grotesque, fast-paced and sarcastic, it left all who saw it breathless. Premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival, it was loved by young critics, loathed with equal passion by the Catholic establishment, and earned huffy put-downs from Luis Buñuel and Michelangelo Antonioni, two of the young director’s heroes. In the end, the film made an international figure out of him. Yet its very success would prove to be a ball and chain for Bellocchio, who for a long time felt it overshadowed his subsequent work. And indeed, arguably, only in his most recent films, My Mother’s Smile (2002) and Good Morning, Night (2003), has he once again touched the extraordinary artistic heights that he did here.
The film is still a knockout today. Mockingly ferocious, blasphemous, and subversive, Fists in the Pocket mounts a frontal assault on family values and Catholic morality. Bellocchio was just out of film school when he wrote the screenplay and borrowed money from his family—the very institution he was about to demolish artistically—to make the movie. He shot the interiors in a country house belonging, ironically, to his mother, near the northern Italian town of Bobbio, not far from his own hometown of Piacenza. One can only speculate how much he identified with his antihero, Alessandro, who is called by diminutives like Ale and Sandrino throughout the film. It is through his shrewd, angry eyes that we view a family of monsters. Formerly well-to-do, they vegetate in a state of infantilism and despondency, only springing to life for dinner table squabbles and slapping matches. Both Alessandro (played by the intense young Swedish actor Lou Castel and dubbed into Italian by Paolo Carlini) and his retarded brother, Leone (Pierluigi Troglio), are epileptics; his sister, Giulia (Paola Pitagora), is notably unbalanced; their older brother and breadwinner, Augusto (Marino Masé), is self-serving and avaricious; their mother (Liliana Gerace), blind. To top it off, there are hints of unholy bonds between Alessandro and Giulia.
Remarkably, Bellocchio manages to give each of these freakish characters a point of view with which we can sympathize. What is this but an ordinary middle-class family run amok? They spring to life as vivid and real and hurting. Even the cold-blooded Augusto, the “normal” one and the hardest to redeem, can be appreciated for not simply running off and abandoning the whole tribe. So, when bad boy Alessandro decides to solve all their problems by precipitating a “collective suicide,” we care. We especially care about him, the mad epileptic genius of the family (called by one offended critic an “aestheticized Nazi”), who takes on the responsibility of group guilt. In a strange way, these characters seem to know their destiny in advance and to tauntingly elicit it. “Please don’t upset me,” says Alessandro’s supposedly unsuspecting mother before he pushes her off a cliff. “Let me enjoy the ride.” Are they really closet suicides glad to let him look culpable?
In miniature, this key 1960s film contains the creative seed of just about all of the director’s twenty-odd works that were to follow. The theme of the psychologically repressive family, for example, runs all the way to Good Morning, Night, where the family out of hell is a coven of terrorists. Key imagery is already there, like the liberating bonfire in which the children burn their dead mother’s possessions, which turns up as witchery in The Sabbath (1988). Alessandro’s desecrating leap over his mother’s coffin echoes the refusal of the Sergio Castellitto character in My Mother’s Smile (known in Italy as The Religion Hour) to be co-opted into the self-serving religion of his mother, who is about to be canonized. Though made thirty-seven years apart, both films concur in their rejection of middle-class Catholic hypocrisy, with their giggling choirboys, nuns mumbling prayers, and the disturbingly false ring of priests’ funeral orations. The character of the lonely, weak-minded Leone also tenderly returns as the hospitalized brother in My Mother’s Smile, while the gentle, unstable Giulia appears again and again, in various guises, in Bellocchio’s female protagonists.
Bellocchio is the great psychologist of Italian cinema. Much later in his career, he was to collaborate with his psychoanalyst, Massimo Faggioli, on a foursome of controversial dramas—Devil in the Flesh (1986), The Sabbath, The Conviction (1991), and The Dream of the Butterfly (1994)—but his sensitivity to the subtleties of the human mind is evident from his first film. The childish, neurotic behavior of Alessandro and his clan signals the fear that immobilizes all their desires and carries them to extremes. The theme of mental illness can be found throughout Bellocchio’s work, most explicitly in his documentary critique of mental hospitals in Matti da slegare (1975) and in Marcello Mastroianni’s mad would-be king in Henry IV (1984).
The hard-edged political critique of Bellocchio’s later films is also here. Though not an overtly political movie, Fists in the Pocket has always been identified as a prophetic precursor to the student revolt of the late 1960s, and as one of its first important manifestos against paralyzing middle-class convention. “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,” Bellocchio noted. The 1968 student protests, which continued off and on until 1977, shook Italy’s tradition-bound society perhaps even more than they did French society. They began in the universities, against the power of professors, and then spread to contesting the state, political parties, the family, and the Catholic Church. These themes would be tackled again in his next two feature films, China Is Near (1967) and In the Name of the Father (1971). What is interesting is how Alessandro is not a hero but an antihero: his inner violence blows up the world around him as he himself explodes. In this sense, he’s light-years away from Bellocchio, who embraced a libertarian student movement, power to the imagination, and the nonviolent contestation of fathers/professors. Alessandro instead belongs to a darker, subsequent political phase in which things changed.
Then again, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to read Fists in the Pocket as an auteurist horror film about repressed violence in the provinces. Its bleak immediacy grabs you by the throat and won’t let go until its gleefully bitter end. The family itself, outcasts living on the edge of town, is scary enough to raise gooseflesh on Augusto’s straight fiancée, Lucia, who comes from the “normal” world. Rodents are the featured animals, from Augusto’s nocturnal rat-shooting excursions to Alessandro’s desire to raise chinchillas. Above all, death clothes everything: we get cemetery visits, wakes and funerals, All Souls’ Day. Italy’s premier composer of film music, Ennio Morricone, wrote the modern, mocking score for Fists in the Pocket. This piece, haunting in more ways than one, creates a funereal undertone as it melds the dirge “Dies irae,” from the Catholic mass for the dead, with ringing bells and atonal cacophonies.
Pasolini famously remarked that, in contrast to Bertolucci’s “cinema of poetry,” Bellocchio’s films represent a “cinema of prose” in which the style—the camera work and editing—is not foregrounded; the film language is transparent, and what counts is the content. Okay, but today one can see that pictorially, too, Fists in the Pocket tore a hole in the pretty canvas of Italian cinema. The raw energy of Alberto Marrama’s clean, up-close black-and-white cinematography gives the film a rebelliously modern look and shows how carefully Marrama, Bellocchio, and camera operator Giuseppe Lanci (the director of photography on many of his later films) had studied the French nouvelle vague. The 35mm camera has the freedom associated with digital video today and offered an exciting way to film the actors’ body-oriented performances. The acting is given maximum emphasis through the slow, ferocious rhythm of the editing, by future filmmaker Silvano Agosti, who knows exactly where he’s going and what provocative effects he wants to achieve, like counterpointing agonized death throes with the glorious strains of La traviata.
The film is also notable for being the debut of Lou Castel, whom Bellocchio met at film school and who was to return in a related role in The Eyes, the Mouth (1982). Castel’s inventive blend of what Bellocchio calls “the mild-mannered and the criminal” attains true grandeur in the terrifying final scenes, where his electrifying theatricality aims at gods like Shakespeare and Marlon Brando (the latter’s photo, taped to Giulia’s bed, almost seems to be acting with them). As Giulia, the young Paola Pitagora—who was later to become a well-known theater actress—creates a memorably ambiguous character, in a role Bellocchio had originally imagined for Susan Strasberg.
It’s now clear that the influence of Fists in the Pocket stretched far beyond the boundaries of Italy, where it shook up the film establishment and pushed just about everyone’s thinking out of the long-cooled ashes of neorealism and into an aggressive, contemporary cinema. As film critic Paolo Mereghetti writes, “When it came out, it ripped the collective film imagination to shreds.” And nothing in Italian cinema would ever be the same again.
Deborah Young, an American film critic based in Rome, has written about the work of Marco Bellocchio for Variety and Film Comment.