The Monuments to Death: Contemporary Rome in Marco Bellocchio's L'ora Di Religione (Il Sorriso Di Mia Madre)

By Maggi, Armando | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

The Monuments to Death: Contemporary Rome in Marco Bellocchio's L'ora Di Religione (Il Sorriso Di Mia Madre)


Maggi, Armando, Annali d'Italianistica


In the short film La sequenza del fiore di carta (The sequence of the paper flower, 1968), Pier Paolo Pasolini grants an explicitly ideological meaning to the imposing image of Piazza della Repubblica in Rome. (1) In the opening scene, Ninetto Davoli sits at the fountain at the center of the square and observes the intense traffic that literally revolves around the huge fountain before flowing down through Via Nazionale. Later, slowly strolling down the busy street, Ninetto briefly converses with some people. While a backward tracking shot follows Ninetto in his slow descent toward his final death, images from war documentaries (for example, bombs falling from airplanes, a platoon marching on an open space, but also the corpse of Che Guevara) are superimposed on the image of the carefree young man, who at times holds a big red paper flower. From above, God's voice asks Ninetto for a sign, just a simple nod, but the young man is either unable or unwilling to respond to the divine request. God speaks through a series of different voices, such as an ingratiating priest and a churchy lady. The pious woman tells Ninetto: "Ti parlero lo stesso [...] anche se tu non mi vuoi dare alcun segno" ("I will speak to you anyway, [...] even though you don't want to give me any sign"). In Pasolini's view, the young man deserves to be struck by a divine lightning because God cannot forgive him his ignorance vis-a-vis the tragic nature of human history.

The theme of a private descent towards one's own death is clearly detectable in Marco Bellocchio's intense and inspired film L'ora di religione (Il sorriso di mia madre), which was released in the United States with the simplified title My Mother's Smile. In this recent film (2002), the city of Rome--with its famous monuments, streets, and squares--plays a central and disquieting role, which recalls Pasolini's Sequenza del fiore di carta. We must first underscore a striking similarity between Bellocchio's and Pasolini's films. In both works, Rome is present in its most touristy version, as one would expect in a video publicizing the most cliched spots of the Eternal City. This easily recognizable view of Rome is a fundamental aspect of a film in which, paradoxically, the more conventional and realistic the shots of the Roman monuments are, the more unreal and oneiric the story becomes. Both Pasolini and Bellocchio describe a descent to a modern hell, which the "pilgrim" can neither understand nor flee. Moreover, in both films religion plays a central role. In Pasolini's Sequenza, God asks for a sign, whereas in Bellocchio's L'ora di religione the Catholic God demands a passive acceptance of His existence. Finally, in both works we hear the voice of a pious mother, who addresses a young man (her son in Bellocchio) with a resigned insistence.

The forceful presence of Roman monuments in Marco Bellocchio's film is particularly significant, if we consider that Bellocchio is a director who tends to privilege interiors. (2) He is able to inject a disquieting sense of claustrophobia even into exterior locations--as we see, for instance, in La balia (The Nanny, 1999) and Buongiorno, Notte (Good Morning, Night, 2003), both of them set in Rome in two different historical moments. These two powerful films are eloquent examples of Bellocchio's obsessive emphasis on interiors. La balia, based on one of Pirandello's short stories, is almost entirely centered on two closed spaces. The first is a dark bourgeois apartment in a somber Renaissance building in which Dr. Mori, a psychiatrist, and his wife live at the beginning of the twentieth century; the second is the mental hospital, where the Roman physician interacts with his patients, some of whom only pretend to be mentally ill for political reasons (the interiors of this hospital recall Bellocchio's most recent film Vincere, on the tormented life of Ida Dalser, Benito Mussolini's alleged lover and wife whom the fascist regime interned in order to keep her relationship with the Duce secret). …

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