Marx Can Wait

An intimate portrait of a family still searching for answers 50 years after the suicide of their brother.

Marco Bellocchio is a legendary acclaimed filmmaker, with a lifetime of success. However he describes himself and his siblings as sharing an “arid unhappiness” from growing up in a house where they were provided with all the basics, but it was “a desert of affection”. Indeed mental illness and misery ran through the family, and each of them struggled to find their own way of surviving their childhood.

Their mother was a religious zealot, who saw her duty towards her children as primarily ensuring the salvation of their souls. She loved them passionately but it was an impersonal love. She loved them as a cypher for motherhood, and the devotion of a madonna. She didn’t really know them as people, or see their inner selves and struggles. Her intensity was something for her children to manage, a martyrdom that they daren’t speak ill of. Yet she was never a comfort or refuge for them. Their emotional needs were trifling matters compared to the war for their souls.

Whether her suffering drove her religiosity or her religiosity drove her suffering, it’s hard to say, but she got both in plenty measure. Her son Paolo had some kind of mental illness, or learning disability, or developmental issue. Marco describes his brother as a “lunatic”. He would scream and rage and have violent episodes and kept the rest of his siblings in fear. His mother, partly out of maternal devotion, partly out of fear of middle-class shame, kept Paolo in the family home, despite his erratic behaviour. But she never sought to treat or temper his evident disturbance, only checking him when he blasphemed in his ravings. Nor did she protect her other children from the effects of Paolo’s cacophonies. They all felt like they were just left to deal with things on their own.

Paolo and his deaf sister Letizia took up all their mother’s attention, and the other kids were left to fend for themselves. But it was from Marco’s twin brother Camillo the tragedy would come. Sandwiched between the profound needs of Paolo and Letizia, and his over-achieving brothers (as well as Marco becoming an internationally lauded director at 26, their older brother Piergiorgio was a prize winning writer) Camillo got lost in the cracks. He always had an air of melancholy about him, but he was so deft at turning everything into a joke and laughing it off, his siblings always laughed it off too. He did reasonably well academically until high school, when he was moved into sharing a room with Paolo. Marco laments that none of them really considered what that must have been like for him. They were all terrified of Paolo, but gave no thought what it must be like to have to sleep next to him.

The whole film is about the remaining questions after his suicide. No one saw it coming. No one had any inkling it would happen. Camillo had a hard time finding his way in adult life, struggling in secondary school, technical school, then the army. Unlike his prodigy brothers, he has no idea what he wanted to do with his life, and instead of seeing this as normal part of learning about yourself in your 20s, viewed it as a succession of failures. Perhaps if his suicide followed one of these disappointments, it would have been easier to understand, but it came when, at 29, he was teacher with a long-term girlfriend. Everyone had begun to believe they didn’t need to worry about him.

This film is a searingly intimate watch. Marco reproaches himself for being wrapped up in his work, his passion for cinema and politics. The title comes from an occasion when Camillo reached out to Marco for help, describing his struggle with depression. Marco offered a Marxist analysis of Camillo’s melancholy, and extorted him to read political literature. Camillo simply replied, “Marx can wait”. None of them seemed to see how immediate his need was.

As hard as it is to hear the story of a 29-year old man committing suicide, it is in some ways harder to see 80-year-olds sitting around discussing it. It is a loss that never leaves them, questions they never have answers to. 50 years have passed and Marco now looks like an old man, while his twin is forever a fresh-faced man of 29, frozen in photographs.

This film is about the lingering legacy of grief. Camillo is painted in negative space in this film, the ghost where the hole is.

The Miracle Child

So, The Miracle Child is billed as a movie about a wee girl who starts having miracles attributed to her. It’s not, it’s a queer film where the B-plot is headlined instead of the love story. Whether that’s to serve marketing or the mystery of the romance is kind of irrelevant, because once you’re watching it, this film is hella gay.

Bristling with barely suppressed sexual desire and the aching yearning of first love, the film centres on Lino, a young guy who holds his family together by working for a pittance as a Deliveroo driver and lovingly raising his younger sister, while his mentally ill mother sinks further into woolly-minded forgetfulness. He seems to be about 19, and he still shares a room with his little sister, who is about 9 or so. They live in a tiny flat with three months’ back rent due, in a poor neighbourhood. Yet, he still finds time to be a teenager, hanging out with his mates, playing footie, and going out on the randan.

His best mate is Mario. As the film begins we follow Mario’s dawning awakening that he doesn’t just love Lino as a friend, but longs to touch, to kiss, to hold him. For much of the film, Lino’s sexuality remains ambiguous, but it seems less the sexual aspect that would be an issue for him than the love. Lino needs Mario. Like, NEEDS him. He has been completely deprived of love from his mother, and has no father to look to. He has had to hold everything together for his little sister, whom he dotes on, and no one ever asks him how he’s doing or if he needs a hand. Mario is the only person he can be real with, rely on, the only person who is always there. He can cry with Mario, get a hug, sleep in his bed when he can’t handle going home. And he absolutely would never risk their relationship by changing it into something more. As the film goes on his unawareness of the nature of their mutual love seems to become more and more like willful blindness. Mario is so scared of rejection and Lino is so scared of change, your heart aches to see one of them take the leap.

Anyway, the film begins with his younger sister Annaluce seemingly bringing a dove back to life after it smacks face-first into the tits of the Virgin Mary statue. This storyline plays out with as much humour as drama, with the neighbourhood starting to revere her as a saint as the ‘miracles’ start to stack up. Of course, they be miracles or they may have a reasonable explanation, but it’s more about how the whole community changes their attitudes towards the family. They go from being completely isolated, with only Lino, still a teenager, the only one concerned with his sister’s welfare or his mother’s mental state, to being surrounded by people praising both mother and daughter, bringing money, gifts and an overwhelming amount of attention. The landlord who threatened to kick in their door for his money brings a prayer candle and forgives the debt.

The question is, why did they need a dead dove to do all this? The landlord could have forgiven the debt just as easily before he thought God was watching. Everyone knew the family was struggling, but the money only starts to flow when they all think they might get something out of it. Lino reviles the hypocrisy of it, and worries about Annaluce’s wellbeing in the midst of this religious hysteria. However his mother seems to feel a lift in her years-long depression, feeling hope for the first time.

Ironically all of this only pushes Lino further out his family. His bed is covered in gifts for Annaluce, who is now pre-occupied with praying for the whole neighbourhood. His mother dislikes his disbelief and constant complaining about not being able to get in his own home or sleep in his own bed for chanting pilgrims.

The Miracle Child of the film’s title is Lino, not Annaluce. She is repeatedly called a saint and miracle child by the neighbours, but it is Lino who laboured without fanfare or notice, who cared for those who could not care for themselves, who was patient and selfless, and worked and struggled, and who is going through this heart-rending unspoken love for his best friend alone. He was all these blessings ignored.

Which is why his love story with Mario has such desperation and vulnerability. One scene in particular – don’t worry, you’ll know it when you come to it – manages to walk this fine balance between tentative awkwardness, heart-breaking yearning, and profound eroticism. One of the best love scenes I’ve seen in recent years, complex, ambiguous but ultimately intimate and tender.

Excellent romance, with the rollercoaster of life weaving all through it.

Jealousy, Italian Style

Jealousy, Italian Style is a dark rom-com about a love triangle that leads to tragedy.

With films a full half-century old, and in a different language, there’s always a worry that the comedy may not translate, but with Jealousy, Italian Style the humour is based on the timeless and universal subjects of love, rejection, and despair. Even in 2022, it’s a good laugh.

The film starts with Oreste being brought in handcuffs to the scene of his crime, and asked to explain what happened. In the presence of his lawyer and a judge, he starts to re-enact the fight, while Adelaide, the lassie at the centre of the triangle, narrates how things came to this end.

While the film starts out quite light, with Adelaide and Oreste falling in love at first sight, and doing all the stereotypical romantic stuff, like chasing each other along a beach, there’s still a dark slant, with Oreste complaining that the beach is mochet, and helping Adelaide scrape something off her shoe. That bleak comedy dials up slowly as the film gets darker and darker, with it being a running joke throughout the movie that, there being so many skirmishes in Adelaide’s lovelife, she is repeatedly taken to the hospital by ambulance, until everyone there knows her on a first name basis.

The film’s structure also provides a lot of humour, because the linear story is effectively a long flashback, and characters will occasionally break the fourth wall to address the judge and make comments on their actions. The cast are excellent, with great timing and the exact expression to make the joke land. Marcello Mastroianni who plays Oreste is especially to be commended as he manages to make sympathetic a middle-aged married man who leaves his wife and kids to run after a girl half his age, and even hold that sympathy as he gets increasingly violent.

Both Adelaide’s lovers are politically engaged leftists, Oreste is a communist, Nello is an anarchist. She first meets Oreste at a communist carnival, and he sees their first meeting as the beginning of a new and happy life, full of optimism. When she leaves him for Nello, and then briefly for a wealthy lover in an attempt to forget both of them, Oriste searches for meaning from the speakers at a Marxist rally. This ideology which was supposed to change the world, and change him, has left him without answers to the most ageless and important of questions.

An utterly black comedy about the ruination of love, and its utter destruction of those it consumes.

Blue Eyes

Blue Eyes is like a noir crime drama meets a cat-and-mouse heist thriller, neither of which it does satisfaction. The thriller element never really has a high-octane action set piece to get excited about, and the bluesy noir style seems superficial without the developed characterisation to give it any emotional weight. They hamper each other in fact, as the moody tone only serves to slow the pacing down, and make the whole film ponderous.

Set in Rome, it has a basic plot about a bank robber who escapes by motorcycle. A French police chief is brought in to find the culprit. That’s it. Which is why it feels like it drags even though it’s only an hour and a half.

There is a definite focus on style over substance, and it is arguably over-stylised. Some scenes reminded me of stuff from the early 2000s, and not in a good way.

At the end of the day, it just feels empty.

The Peacock’s Paradise

I love family implosion movies. In The Peacock’s Paradise, grandmother Nena celebrates her birthday with her whole family around her. The film is set almost entirely within her flat, as unspoken tensions rise and long-hidden secrets are revealed.

As the characters arrive, you feel the chess board being set. Nena and her husband Umberto have kept secret from their children that Nena also has been lifelong lovers with her neighbour and ‘close friend’, Lucia. Lucia’s daughter Caterina knows, but keeps it from Nena’s children, who are as close to her as siblings. Grazia, Nena’s daughter, is a wealthy divorce lawyer, who is yet to tell her family that her husband, Manfredi, has left her for a girl half her age, Joana. She feels a sense of shame and failure, especially in the presence of her brother’s family. Vito, a widower, is there with his new fiancĂ©, Adelina, and his daughter, Alma. Adelina is nervous and insecure, constantly trying to impress Nena, who was close with Vito’s first wife, and feeling inadequate. Nena dotes on Alma, but is less enthused with her pet peacock Paco, who has been brought along to the party.

The whole afternoon plays out with tensions rising among the party, springing from secrets the others have no knowledge of. Feelings are bruised as characters step on unseen landmines.

But what makes The Peacock’s Paradise a little different is the level of warmth and resolution within the family. Sparks fly and people fall out, but there is a genuine niceness to everyone there, and the potential to reconcile is as strong as their bonds. Also, Lucia’s health is declining and she seems to be drifting into some kind of dementia, so an awareness of their own mortality hangs over Nena and Umberto, prompting the question of what is really important in the end?

A nice film with a warm and subtly passionate cast, providing a slice of human drama set across a sunny afternoon.

If you like this…

The Hole

The Hole is a film set in the 1960s Italian countryside about a cave being explored for the first time by an academic contingent.

First things first. This film is a landscape. It’s not about the people, it’s not a portrait. The entire film the only thing that is subtitled is a piece of television shown before the title card. Human discussion is not subtitled, anymore than the cows lowing or the birds singing would be.

Secondly, the film’s pace is suited for the cave as the main character. This is not a film about human rush and bustle. It is about an event in the life of this cave, and its pacing is of the soft harmony of the valley, and the curious and cautious exploration of the explorers. I tell you this so you will adjust your expectations accordingly, because once you relax into it, this film is quietly beautiful.

The film begins with a shot from within the cave, looking out at the dawning sky. The film is shot from the cave’s perspective, with the humans peering in, rather than over their shoulder peering down into the cave. The film is broken up into the legs of their journey across days and nights. It is not about their chat at camp or their personal interrelationships. When I say the film is about a cave being explored I mean exactly that, no more, no less. This is not the backdrop for a human drama. This is about the cave’s first experience of being documented and mapped by studious visitors.

There is a second plotline following an elderly herder who watches over the valley in which the cave sits. He is unnamed and has no subtitles either, but his inclusion emphasises the small span of human life compared to the land. He is shown going back to his hut in the valley, with no electricity or running water, living a way of life that has remained unchanged for countless generations. People rise and fall like flowers each season, but the cave has remained for thousands of years.

Equally as his twilight dwindles into night, we are reminded of ourselves as part of nature, obeying its times for growth and times for decay. The hole for him is the grave he will soon be in, as natural as the cave formed in the valley below.

As the spelunkers squeeze into the tight coffin-like crevices of the last few feet of the long descent, I held my breath at human fragility. This too could easily be their graves. But this is not about the drama of life-threatening peril, but the ever-present reminder of our own mortality. We are but visitors here. It is what makes their attempt at mapping this ancient structure at once so noble and so hubristic; they are so dwarfed by this enormous and ageless abyss that to try, in its face, to create a record for generations to come, seems so defiantly optimistic.

The Hole is a different kind of film in terms of pacing and tone than you might be used to, but it invites you to just sit and watch, to see a piece of the world, to experience its existence.