La Cina è vicina / China is Near (1967)

25 01 2023

I mentioned in my review of Bellocchio’s first film Fists in the Pocket that it lacks the political specificity of this, his follow-up. That seems to be an understatement. He’s pulled on a similar yarn here – once again most of the action takes place in a claustrophobic bourgeois mansion. The incestuous energy is admittedly toned down here but there’s still ample psychosexual tension. The difference of course is that the political subtext of the previous film becomes, well, the text here. Here, there is not one ideology that is privileged and one satirized but instead a multifaceted sendup of the entire ideological axis. In the end, no one ends up looking particularly great.

Working class lovers Carlo and Giovanna awake from a mutual embrace in less-than-ideal circumstances. The setting for this lovers’ tryst is two benches pushed together in a cold room. The house belongs to an upper-class professor, Vittorio, and his sister Elena. Elena is politically conservative and sexually adventurous. Vittorio, meanwhile, is taking an opportunity to boast about his newfound socialist leanings. A third family member, Camillo, struggles to establish a limited and strict Maoist group. Eager to break into the protective grasp of a wealthy family, Carlo and Giovanna both sleep their way upward; Carlo impregnates Elena and Giovanna is impregnated by Vittorio, who continues to stumble his way through a campaign for municipal office.

Much of the sexuality that was suggested in Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket is made literal here. The film opens immediately with our would-be heroes/lovers in an embrace, and the subsequent social climbing seductions that both undertake shortly thereafter are very matter of fact. Carlo beds Elena almost immediately, without even a moment to develop any sexual tension between the two. This works appropriately with the story Bellocchio and his screenwriter Elda Tattoli (who also plays Elena) are attempting to tell. In this world, sexuality functions almost like a social currency, and this is cynically believed by not only the film’s writers but by the characters of Carlo and Giovanna as well.

Carlo and Giovanna do not become our noble and upstanding work class heroes. Instead, their cynicism (mirroring Bellocchio’s own but differing in its interpretation) renders them as calculating and sinister as Vittorio and Elena, the comfortably bourgeoise siblings. Vittorio’s cynicism develops in his nearly spontaneous interest in politics. His interest is nearly almost entirely driven by power, which lands as the perfect punchline when the setup for the joke is he’s running for office as a socialist. Carlo acts as his accountant and unofficial guide to the Italy that exists outside of the family’s mansion. He’s, of course, not as much interested in Vittorio’s success in government as he in exposing to him to as many difficult situations as possible.

In one key sequence, Carlo arranges Vittorio to speak as a town square. Unimpressed with the turnout, Vittorio is immediately incensed, but Carlo talks him into proceeding, “Just admit you’re shitting your pants” he tells the professor. The fecal rhetoric works on him but the whole things turns on it’s head when a disgruntled Vittorio’s papers are blown away, and he feels so utterly helpless that he has no choice but to take out his frustrations on a small boy. It’s the sort of spectacular public speaking disaster that isn’t entirely foreign to local politics in 2023, which makes the humor ring even truer. As they watch a hostile crowd descend into madness, Carlo remarks to Elena rather nonchalantly, “your brother is rather nervous.”

While the consensus on China is Near is that no one character comes out unblemished or avoids ridicule, it’s perhaps the film’s most passively non-political character who comes out most conscious of the untamable and unsalvageable nature of the political machine. It’s Elena, Vittorio’s sister, played by the film’s screenwriter Elda Tattoli. There is little to nothing written about Tattoli’s career in general and only Andrew Sarris’ review even makes passing reference to the fact that she wrote the film. Her presence is staggering to me, as she seems the numbest to all the chaos enveloping everything else. Tattoli collaborated two more times with Bellocchio. First, she codirected with Bellocchio a segment for 1969’s Love and Anger, which also featured contributions from Bertolucci and Godard. Later, in 1972, she made her full-length directorial debut with Pianeta Venere, a film which I am unable to find as of this writing. Her pen and her performance suggest a career of worthwhile contributions to cinema but outside of the projects I’ve already mentioned, it seems her career was resigned to bit roles in Italian sword-and-sandals pictures. She died in 2005.





I pugni in tasca / Fists in the Pocket (1965)

18 01 2023

The defining image of Marco Bellochio’s debut, Fists in the Pocket is undoubtedly the face of its protagonist, Alessandro, portrayed by Lou Castel. The devilish smirk belongs not to a calculating menace, but instead a tormented, fragile, and deeply disturbed son. If The Conformist retold the story of Fascism in Italy, Bellochio’s film instead tracks a deep ambivalence that must have been present in a period of political refractory. At the time of its making, Bellochio himself was active in the Italian Communist Party, but little to no ideology is detectable in the film’s surface, something that cannot be said for his follow-up film China is Near. Yet, there is an undeniable energy here compatible with his antifascism. Gallows humor is the intention here, but there is a rebellious spirit that manages to resist any political classification. It is a supremely satisfying as a portrait of, well, dissatisfaction.

Alessandro lives in his family mountainside villa with his blind mother, his sister Giulia, and two brothers, Augusto and Leone. All of them, save Augusto, suffer from epileptic fits. Its Augusto who is engaged to be married, to his lover Lucia, much to the chagrin of his siblings. Lucia receives a love note, presumably fabricated, by a lover of Augusto who does not exist. Meanwhile, Alessandro writes a love poem for Giulia. When he reads the daily papers for his blind mother, Alessandro dreams up non-existing headlines of immense violence and devastation, setting himself up for a future where he commits such acts against his family. To him, his brother’s marriage, and the prospects of a subsequent move into the city will so deeply dissolve the family that their physical extermination logically corresponds.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, Lou Castel’s presence in world cinema was often a shorthand evocation of the May 1968 spirit. This is most obvious in Phillipe Garrel’s La Naissance de l’amour and Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep. The two films were made three years apart and Castel’s presence is contrasted in both films with Jean-Pierre Leaud, cinema’s definitive face of May 1968. Watching Castel in his debut is thus a marvel, as his incestuous closed off family plays out a claustrophobic chamber drama in step with the (then) recent geopolitical history of Italian fascism. Unlike his more explicitly political second film, China is Near, Fists in the Pocket never directly addresses any sort of political intentions. Instead, we are left with the sinking feeling that the twisted logic of Alessandro has been disseminated amongst his family (his sister Giulia seems to willingly share their incestuous tension) just as the twisted logic of Fascism was disseminated amongst Italy.

As his first film, Bellochio was starved for resources. Initially, he had intentioned his film to be the sort of naturalistic and poetic vision reminiscent of Jean Renoir. Infamously, two of his biggest cinematic heroes, Luis Buñuel and Michelangelo Antonioni, were dismissive of the film. While one can track the influence of all three, he has also innovated through limitations. While we are treated on occasion of foggy setups of the rolling mountains enveloping our character, we are more often forced to cohabit with them inside a large but tight villa. This works wonders for Bellochio considering the incestuous undertones of the film, emphasizing the limited world(view) and alienation from those on the outside.

Of course, the other massive component that worked out great for Bellochio is young Castel’s manic energy. He manages to operate on high and low with such (un)harmonious brilliance. He can take on the tender dissatisfaction of a Bressonian model in one sequence, and then burst chaotically into a fit of laughter during a funeral in another. While his intentions are often monstrous, one never feels at ease sacrificing all their empathy. His plot to eradicate his family suggests sickness, but his volatility makes it plays natural, as if a byproduct of an environment that harbors the possibility of such thoughts, as opposed to the pen of a screenwriter.