Three stories on end-of-life decisions that don't quite fit together
[For the next week we'll be looking at some of the movies playing at the Film Comment Selects series, featuring films hand selected by the editors of Film Comment magazine. For tickets and more information on the series, go here or visit FilmLinc.com.]
End-of-life decisions are the stuff of high drama and intense debate. I remember getting into a lot of heated discussions during the final weeks of Terry Schiavo's life about euthanasia, dying with dignity, family wishes, political intervention, and the larger moral and ethical questions behind it all. It's this emotional and intellectual matter that fuels Marco Bellocchio's Dormant Beauty (Bella Addormentata), which was one of the contenders for Italy's Foreign-language Oscar submission. (Caesar Must Die wound up being the country's entry, though it did not receive the nomination.)
At the center of Dormant Beauty is a real-life event. Eluana Englaro spent 17 years in a vegetative state after a car accident. After a long legal battle, her feeding tube was removed at the request of her father. She passed away in 2009.
Rather than focus on Englaro herself and those closest to the case, Bellocchio focuses on three separate stories in which people wrestle with end-of-life decisions while watching the final days of Englaro's life unfold. It's an ambitious way to tackle a big topic, and though what Bellocchio attempts is admirable, the film runs into problems related to structure and the difficulties of condensed storytelling.
Dormant Beauty (Bella Addormentata)
One of the film's narrative threads involves Uliano, an Italian Senator played by Toni Servillo. He's set to vote on whether the government should intervene and continue feeding Englaro. While Uliano's party is leaning one way with their vote, Uliano himself is trying to come to terms with the demands of party and his own sense of conscience. His daughter Maria (Alba Rohrwacher) wants Englaro kept alive, and she goes with her friends to protest and pray. What makes this relationship and their ideological split particularly powerful is a personal tie to euthanasia. Years before, Maria's mother was on life support and they had to decide whether to let her die or keep her living.
The Uliano/Maria story could have sustained a movie of its own since there's so much rich material in the political dimension and the personal dimension. Maria even has her own love story as she falls suddenly and madly for Roberto (Michele Riondino), a young stranger at a truck stop. He has a mentally disturbed brother that he has to take care of at all times, adding a facet of interpersonal obligation to the film (i.e., what is our moral responsibility to people who can't take care of themselves?). This coming-of-age love story for Maria dovetails into her father's story -- he thinks she's intentionally missing his calls because of years-long resentments. There's the heavy and the light stuff of history all rolled up into a single story: love, death, life, politics, religion, and family.
But in making room for the other two stories (more on those in a bit), Bellocchio loses time to unpack. I wanted to stay with these characters and situations longer, but we have to cut away to other characters and their stories, none of which are connected to this one in any personal way. It's a back and forth of shared themes but varied rhythms. I began to think of the stories as spokes on a wheel, and Englaro is the hub that connects them -- nothing else. And so we get expedients as opposed to exploration. When Maria tells Roberto she wants to be with him always, it seems less like a young woman's naivete or a powerful case of love at first sight and more like an attempt to force a deeper connection between characters as quickly as possible. This is urgency due to less screentime rather than urgency due to people feeling the moment.
This sense of narrative expediency might be strongest in the Isabelle Huppert part of Dormant Beauty. Huppert plays an acclaimed actress (actors playing actors is always a big wink to the audience) who has given up her career to take care of her daughter in a coma. She's been hooked to a respirator for years and shows no signs of getting better. We only know she's alive by the forced sound of air mechanically filling her lungs. We're first introduced to this segment of the film with Huppert aggressively pacing back and forth with a few nuns reciting the Rosary. Louder, she demands, as if the force of their unified voices could accomplish anything.
Perhaps more than the other two stories in Dormant Beauty, this one is the most actorly. By that I mean the scenes are devised for the various players in it to deliver monologues and emote with abandon for the camera. Sure, each of Bellacchio's stories gets their actorly bits, but this segment is actorly through and through. What's interesting is that Huppert's recent supporting performance in Michael Haneke's Amour was quiet, naturalistic, and understated. In this film, Huppert is doing Acting with emphasis on the capital "A." It's a mannered performance -- everything red lined and dialed up to 11. I think that Bellocchio was trying to give the sense that her character's only outlet for her talent is in caring for her daughter, sometimes with grand performative gestures. Or maybe when given a talent like Huppert, he just wanted to let her rip.
There's a big conflict with Huppert's on-screen son played by Brenno Placido. Placido's character believes that his mother ruined her life by abandoning her career, and he resents her sister for still being alive. His own ambitions to become an actor of renown are filled with a sort of confused narcissism that would have made more sense if Bellocchio had more time to develop this sequence. But again, it's the problem of the ambition and size of these issues, and it's very difficult to collapse all the stuff of living and all the messier stuff of end-of-life matters into neat sections that fit together.
Maybe the weakest link in the film is the third story involving a doctor (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, the director's son) and a woman named Rossa (Maya Sansa). Rossa's a junkie who tried to kill herself in the hospital, and Pier Bellocchio's character is committed to keeping her alive even though she's likely to wind up on the street again. This story isn't a weak link because it's bad by any means -- both Pier Bellocchio and Sansa deliver fine performances -- but it feels like a standalone short film about moral obligations and professional obligations rather than something that can be easily integrated into a feature-length film. Again, that problem of shared theme, limited time, and separate narrative rhythms.
As Dormant Beauty drew to a close, I found myself trying to separate out each of the three bits to evaluate them on their own terms and what they each have to say about life and death. Perhaps as a novel or a short story cycle this all could have worked. I tried to think of how the pieces might be put together a little differently, though finding natural breaks in what happened in each segment was difficult. They all have little epiphanies that they arrive at in their own way, and though I think one of them ends on a note that rings a little false, it's only false because there wasn't time enough to make it ring more true. The resolution to it seemed so neat when the larger issue remains troublesome and unresolved.
Death brings closure and hints of revelation, and ending a film around a death (not necessarily with death) is a convenient way to tie up a story in a metaphor. And yet that little note that once seemed false may just be Bellocchio chiming in with his own ideas about life. The stories will continue to unfold for these characters after the film ends. Then they'll have all the time they need to explore the larger complexities of such a big issue.
[Dormant Beauty will screen at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on Wednesday, February 20; Friday, February 22; and Sunday, February 24.]