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Film Reviews: Kidnapped & Tuesday

Arts Review2024-6-14By: Marc Glassman

 

The Tragic Lives of Children

Kidnapped & Tuesday

By Marc Glassman

 

Kidnapped

Marco Bellocchio, director & co-script w/Susanna Nicchiarelli

Starring: Enea Sala (Edgardo Mortara, young boy), Leonardo Maltese (Edgardo as a young adult), Paolo Pierobon (Pope Pius IX), Fausto Russo Alesi (Salomone “Momolo” Mortara), Barbara Ronchi (Marianna Mortara), Fabrizio Gifuni (Pier Gaetano Feletti)

 

Marco Bellocchio, one of the most esteemed figures in Italian cinema, who has been making award-wining films since his debut feature Fists in the Pocket back in 1965, has once again made something truly noteworthy with Kidnapped. Set in the mid 19th century Italian peninsula, meticulously recreated in costumes, language, and locale, Bellocchio’s film recounts a complex story, which involves a family tragedy, anti-Semitism, the destruction of the historic Papal States, the problematic decline of Pope Pius IX, and meaningful representations of the liturgy in Catholicism and Judaism. 

That’s a lot of ground to cover but Bellocchio does it well, guided by a well-researched book Il Caso Mortara, which describes the genuine events that led to a controversy that discredited the Pope in intellectual and nationalist Italian circles while offering the beginnings of a movement that, for nearly a century, promoted the human rights of Jews in a European society that had always reviled them.

The film starts in 1851 Bologna, then still a part of the Papal States, which reigned in central Italy for nearly 1000 years. One night, the prosperous Jewish Mortara family suddenly had one of their sons, six-year-old Edgardo, taken from them forcibly by representatives of the Catholic Church, who stated that he had been baptized. Though the Mortara family denied the accusation, they had no power; at that time, the Pope and the Church had complete temporal and spiritual control of Bologna. 

The film follows the Mortara family, particularly the shrewd father “Momola” and his tough, beautiful wife Marianna, as they try to get back their son. Through media contacts and formal letters to Jewish organizations in France, England and elsewhere, they turn the case into an international incident, prompting the beginnings of a change in the miserable treatment of Jews throughout Europe. But its local effect was awful: the Church redoubled its case, even having the Pope officiate a formal baptism of Edgardo. Indeed, the Pope took a personal interest in the Mortara story, embracing the child and reinforcing his belief in Catholicism. All attempts by his parents were rebuffed by the Church and even the Roman Jewish community felt embarrassed by them, since they were intent on mollifying the Pope, who could easily humiliate them and make their lives miserable. 

Bellocchio’s historic tale moves forward to 1860, when Bologna was seized by rioters intent on creating an Italian national state. The Kingdom of Sardinia temporarily seized control, as the Pope lost a major part of the region. Pier Feletti, who had been the Grand Inquisitor of Bologna and had Edgardo seized a decade earlier, was placed on trial to justify the claim that the boy had been baptized. Bellocchio creates a superb courtroom drama, which reveals the truth of the case. In Bologna, the Mortara family had a Catholic maid of dubious moral and intellectual quality, who probably did baptize Edgardo because she feared that he might go to Hell if he were to die of a childhood fever, from which he (of course) recovered. Bellocchio shows in court that the maid told her story to Feletti years later, prompting him to seize the child, because anyone baptized even in the simplest manner automatically became a Catholic. Ironically, the trial revealed the absurdity of the reason for Edgardo’s seizure but justified Feletti in taking the child. Feletti was found not guilty, and Solomone didn’t get back his child—not a happy result. Bellocchio’s camera shows him alone, in despair, in the courthouse, after the trial ends. 

History is wonderful: it relates stories to all of us, but at its own pace and rhythm. Ten more years pass before the next major event takes place: 1870, the fall of Rome and the end of the Papal States. Italy is already a kingdom and now receives its crown jewel, Rome. Among those liberated is Edgardo, who confronts one of his brothers, part of the triumphant Italian army, wanting to bring him home. It is too late: Edgardo has totally embraced Catholicism; the Jewish Mortara family have lost a son. 

Marco Bellocchio has made a somber, elegantly paced film. Through his eyes, we watch a Pope move from an emotionally intelligent leader into someone who has lost his way. We see a quiet, smart child discard his background and religion to take on the glamorous and gorgeous trappings of a wholly different life as a Catholic. The drama effectively takes place within these major, historic scenes.

Bellocchio has cast well, as usual, with convincing performances by Enea Sala as the youthful and charismatic Edgardo Mortara, Paolo Pierobon as the conflicted Pope Pius IX, Fausto Russo Alesi as the polite but relentless Salomone “Momolo” Mortara, Barbara Ronchi as the beautiful Jewish mother Marianna Mortara, and Fabrizio Gifuni as the remorseless Pier Gaetano Feletti.

Kidnapped (or Repito in Italian) won five David di Donatello Awards (the Italian Oscars) last year, the most important of which was for Best Adapted Screenplay. Bellocchio has made a scrupulous film, which tells a story of injustice writ large—and it is the genuine, true, tale. You may feel like crying or hitting your hands against the wall in rage by the end. And yet, the story is also terribly civilized: the Pope lost his country but died with dignity; the Mortara family survived without a son; and Edgardo went on to live until he was nearly 90, in a Belgian monastery. 

This film is a tragedy made by adults designed to make us understand what the past can tell us about justice and prejudice.

 

Tuesday

Daina O. Pusić, director and writer

Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Zora), Lola Pettigrew (Tuesday), Leah Harvey (Nurse Billie), Arinzé Kene (Death)

 

An intense chamber music of a piece, Daina O. Pusić’s debut feature film Tuesday is simultaneously wonderful and difficult. Think of the emotional and intellectual content of post-Stalin Shostakovich or late Bartok even more than the dying Schubert: this is bleak, if occasionally hopeful terrain for any work of art to venture. If one can trust the British film critics who have followed the Croatian Pusić’s career so far, she has stunned academic and festival audiences in London with shorts for the past decade. So, it’s not surprising that Tuesday has been receiving critical acclaim despite its problematic content. 

Let’s call Tuesday unique: it’s a two-hander with the addition of a couple of wings. Wings? The film is about the complex loving relationship between a mother, Zora (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and dying daughter, Tuesday (Lola Pettigrew), with the decisive addition of a shape-shifting macaw representing Death and voiced by Arinzé Kene. We’re in the realm of allegory throughout the film, which dramatizes the last day of a cancer ridden teenager who wants to make amends with her mother before passing away. Tuesday buys herself more time by joking with the macaw when it first comes to claim her—as Death must take everyone eventually—and tries to figure out how to be “real” with a mother who is in complete denial of the inevitable. 

Lola Pettigrew, who prefers the term “they,” is a revelation as the titular Tuesday. They effectively sport a pixie hair cut and gallantly deal with having an oxygen mask and a wheelchair. Not exactly going gently into the good night, but understanding fate, Tuesday’s main concern is for Zora, who refuses to accept the reality of the situation. 

The film’s success rides on the performance of Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Tuesday’s battling mother. It’s almost a cliché that comic actors surprise audiences by acing dramatic roles. She’s brilliant as Zora, a fierce fighter who refuses to accept that her daughter is dying. We see her selling precious objects from their house, desperate to pay for her nurse (a fine Leah Harvey) and additional medications for Tuesday. Louis-Dreyfus plays her part with a wide-eyed sincerity mixed, thankfully, with moments of humour. Always a comic actor—notably in Veep and Seinfeld—she’s is unsurprisingly compelling in her role.

Then there’s the macaw. Much of the film takes place in the genre of fantasy. Tuesday and Zora deal with a bird, which represents Death and has the deep voice of a Darth Vader cousin, while moving from small to large depending upon the scene’s emotional content. Credit should go to a visual effects team headed up by Mihail Ahchiev, which make the macaw responsive to Tuesday and Zora in a manner that almost appears to be real. It’s creepy but fascinating to watch the interaction between this digital creature and the despairing mother and daughter. 

The major drawback and attraction to the film is the same: the macaw. Does one accept Death as a digitized bird? The film either works as a metaphor, as a philosophical journey, or not at all.

Tuesday is an odd film to categorize and to champion. It won’t be for everyone. The subject matter is off-putting, and the treatment is undeniably quirky. Those who are willing to go to the director’s artistic terrain will be rewarded. But it’s also understandable that some people will not want to go on Tuesday’s journey.

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