At 83 years-old, Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio has been on a hot streak these past years, with the success both at home and abroad of his 2019 Sicilian mafia epic, The Traitor, and his first ever TV miniseries, Exterior, Night, playing well around Europe.
His latest feature — the 31st in a prolific career that began at age 24 with his breakout drama, Fists in the Pocket — is probably not his greatest, but that’s not really a put-down in a filmography filled with memorable work, including other recent movies like Vincere and Good Morning, Night.
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Kidnapped (Rapito), a period piece about a Jewish boy taken away from his family to live in the Vatican in 1858, may not be on par with those titles, but it’s still an engaging and somewhat fascinating film, telling a true story that probes historic Italian antisemitism and the follies of the Catholic church.
Filled with the director’s typical operatic flourishes — cameras floating down corridors or over balconies as characters race toward disaster, emotional crescendos set to a racing score by Fabio Massimo Capogrosso — it can also be a rather stuffy affair, with lots of dramatic speeches and religious symbolism that runs the gamut from satirical to heavy-handed. What seems to fascinate Bellocchio most about the story is not really the characters, who come across as stereotypes whether they’re Jews or Catholics, but what it says about an epoch when the highly reactionary Pope Pius IX began to lose power in the face of the newly founded Kingdom of Italy.
Wedged in the middle of that struggle is the sad tale of 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara (played by Enea Sala, then Leonardo Maltese), one of the many children of Solomone “Momola” Mortara (Fausto Russo Alesi) and his wife, Marianna (Barbara Ronchi), a Jewish couple living comfortably among the Bolognese bourgeoisie. That comfort quickly comes to an end when local priest and inquisitor Feletti (Fabrizio Gifuni) has soldiers whisk little Edgardo away, explaining that the child was secretly baptized by the family maid. The only way for the couple to get him back is to convert to Catholicism, which they refuse to do.
Written by Bellocchio and Susanna Nicchiarelli, who were inspired by a book about the affair from Daniele Scalise, the script follows Edgardo’s long and traumatizing journey from the hands of his family into those of Pius IX (a very wicked Paolo Pierobon), who sets him up at the Vatican with other Jewish boys forced to learn the catechism and transform into obedient Catholics. Back in Bologna, Momola does all he can to retrieve his child, speaking to the local and international press, who caricature the Pope as a kidnapping monster, and enlisting rabbis and Jewish organizations to back his demands.
“Non possumus” the Pope responds each time, which is basically Latin for “go to hell,” and which leads to Edgardo getting fully indoctrinated into the church while his father stands by helpless and his mother begins to lose her mind. Bellocchio paints these sequences in broad strokes, with Ronchi going a bit overboard as a grieving Jewish mom who won’t ever let go of her little boy, even if her behavior only makes matters worse.
There’s little subtlety in Kidnapped, but such, perhaps, were the tumultuous times the film is set in — especially after the story crosses into the 1860s, when the Papal States, which were ruled by the church, were conquered by an Italian army that left the Pope with little ground to stand on outside the Vatican. Backed into a corner but refusing to relinquish any control, including that over the now fully Catholic Edgardo, Pierobon (Human Capital) plays Pope IX as a raving, conservative zealot whose thirst for power and fear of Jews — illustrated in a silly circumcision nightmare — drives him to extreme positions.
There are some memorable moments where the film captures the confusion felt by Edgardo as he’s forced to worship a different god, and one he learns time and again was killed by Jews like his family. In a rather overstated scene, the boy climbs onto a giant statue of Jesus to remove the iron spikes from his arms and feet, hoping to save his new idol. Other scenes revel in the hypocrisy of a church that’s basically brainwashing Italian youth, teaching them piety while psychologically torturing them at the same time. Prayer sequences within the observant Mortara household and the lofty Vatican are often intercut, although Bellochio tries to differentiate between the two, contrasting the loving and rather modest family with a powerful institution that’s about to crumble.
By the time that happens, Edgardo may be lost to both his parents and Judaism forever, and Kidnapped doesn’t exactly end on a hopeful note, even if Pius IX gets something of a comeuppance. As Bellocchio reveals, the Vatican lost much of its territory after 1870 but remained powerful enough to hold sway over the Italian population, including young men who weren’t even Catholic to begin with. Per an interview with the director, the working title of the film was The Conversion, and we’re left wondering at the end whether Edgardo’s conversion, however forced upon him, became too much to resist.
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