Saturday, September 12, 2015

'Blood of My Blood' (2015) directed by Marco Bellochio (Venice Film Festival 2015)

Blood of My Blood (aka Sangue del mio Sangue) is a tricky little devil. It's composed of two distinct halves that bear little obvious relation to one another. It's also the latest film from the 75 year old Italian director Marco Bellocchio, and is liberally stuffed with references to his previous work, recurring characters and cryptic in-jokes. Not having seen any of his other films, all these callbacks whooshed straight over my head.

The first half is set in a 17th century convent of Bobbio and sees a group of priests trying to prove young nun Benedetta's (Lidiya Liberman) collusion with Satan. A priest has committed suicide following an erotic tryst with her, and is thus destined to be buried in the 'Donkey Cemetery'. His twin brother Federico (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) attends her trials, hoping to witness her confession and secure his brother's  burial in sanctified ground. 

The second, less successful, portion is set in modern Bobbio, with the convent now home to reclusive vampire Count Basta (Roberto Herlitzka). Rarely leaving his lair, he and his undead cronies run the town as their a mini-fiefdom, skimming off the cream of corruption by evading tax and falsifying disability claims. Things are shaken up when tax inspector Federico (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio again) arrives with Russian millionaire Ivan (Ivan Franek), who wants to buy the convent and convert it into a luxury hotel.

It's in the 17th century setting that all of my favourite parts lie. The images of a calm, composed woman staring out at a gaggle of blotchy-faced middle-aged holy men as they pass judgment on her quickly recalling Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. As Benedetta's trials become ever more gruesome, the convent becomes a psychological pressure cooker, with guilt, erotic desire and a particularly Christian self-loathing bubbling under the surface.

Bellocchio's supremely confident direction, combined with Daniele Cipri's cinematography and Carlo Crivelli's bold score, provide a procession of indelible moments. The best of these are a 'ducking' sequence in which Benedetta is weighed down with chains and thrown into a lake. Composed of stately, exacting long-shots and tight close-ups of Liberman, the scene climaxes in a shot looking up from under the water as her body hits the surface. It's a beautiful piece of film-making; tense, terrifying and stunningly evocative.

The film regularly hits these high notes throughout this portion, the dark, austere candle-lit interiors proving to be fertile aesthetic territory. Things reach a zenith in the film's surreal, woozily dream-like climax, which I won't spoil here, but is a real masterclass in lighting, pacing, performance and showing the audience just enough to allow us to comprehend what's going on.

This firmly seated awesome-ness makes the switch to modernity rather jarring. I can only assume that these sequences are intentionally ugly to highlight crass materialism. Similarly dislocating is that, despite Helitzka's commandingly regal performance, the second half is stuffed with hammy over-acting. By far the worst offender is Filippo Timi, whose wince-inducing mugging goes down like a lead balloon, though the rest of these moribund broad comedic turns don't fare much better.

The credits eventually roll with little obvious connection between the 17th century and vampiric present, save some tantalising casting choices. The rustling of scratched heads and slightly perplexed applause quickly gave way to a cinema-full of people turning to their companions and asking "what the hell was that about?

Frankly, I'm not sure either. There's a critique in contrasting our instinctive condemnation of historical corruption and our acceptance of it's modern equivalent - though I'm not entirely sure that branding a woman with red-hot iron and manipulating a disabled tax allowance is quite the same thing. Also in the mixing pot is a cynical analysis of the way religion warps and distorts society, institutional violence (torture vs. bloodsucking) and the well-off preying on the poor.

I suspect a proper analysis of Blood of My Blood would rest on a comprehensive knowledge of Bellocchio's filmography, the Catholic church and Italian cultural norms - all which largely elude me. Despite all that, I enjoyed myself - I don't particularly mind being baffled and the film is constructed so meticulously that large portions function as a cinematic and performative masterclass.


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