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.