Bright Lights Film Journal

Thrilling and Horrifying: Bellocchio and De Palma at the Venice Film Festival 2015 (with Detours to Childhood of a Leader and Beasts of No Nation)

Marco Bellocchio's Blood of My Blood

From the start of Blood of My Blood, we can sense the power that is contained within the mysterious malleability of light. Within a scene, some actions are clearly etched while others lack sharp outlines, making them harder to digest – and easy to contest. There are elements too fragile, too diffuse to survive the transition into narrative: history is a very fine sieve, and not everything can pass through intact.

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Like the Berlinale’s Panorama, the Horizons program at Venice contains a large number of “issue” films. Labeled as forums for emerging cinema, these sections tend to be dominated by conventionally harrowing films that appeal on the grounds of topicality and urgency. Some works have enough stylistic flourishes to avoid being pure message movies, although one doubts they would have qualified on formal innovation alone. The typical entry is a blend of genre suspense and arthouse tedium (long takes, routine actions, glimpses of sallow flesh).

A Monster with a Thousand Heads

This year’s Horizons opener, the Mexican drama A Monster with a Thousand Heads, zeroes in on a single social issue. The title is misleading: it looks at the inequality of healthcare through one case study, without exploring its larger implications. When Sonia (Jana Raluy) crusades to get better treatment for her husband’s cancer, she cuts a straightforward path through society, from the minor players to the centers of power. As she turns violent, the moral complications are minimal, since her cause remains righteous. Our expectations are never challenged – for instance, we don’t see how the use of controls might be essential for medical research. True, the film isn’t all plot – director Rodrigo Plá uses blur, silence, and turns his actors’ backs to the camera – but these are obvious ways of conveying alienation. What do they tell us other than that “the system’s not working” and the protagonist is mad as hell? As judges of the FIPRESCI Prize for Horizons and Critics’ Week, we saw a great many of these films: competent, affecting, but not memorable – and not really engaged with cinema as a medium.

Thus it was a shock to come across The Childhood of a Leader: one of the few works in Horizons that really did announce the arrival of a new voice. Although it might be taken for the late work of a European master – in the tradition of Alexander Sokurov’s profiles on dictators – this film is the debut of 27-year-old American director Brady Corbet. It is as spectacular and precisely orchestrated as its thunderous soundtrack: an investigation of power and the psychological complexes that underlie oppression and megalomania.

We begin with an American family living in France just before the treaty of Versailles; the father is a diplomat, the mother a fragile beauty, and the child an angel-faced boy with malign tendencies. While Corbet’s style is much more explosive, what he shares with Sokurov is a crucial reluctance to explain evil. Instead, there is an expression of the fascist sensibility through visual and sonic effects, giving us a close study of the textures of power: what it would feel like to be inside a diabolical mind.

From the opening scenes, Corbet clearly has creative energy to burn: the booming orchestral soundtrack makes us experience power as an exciting assault on the senses, always moving forward and upward. This is not one of those meek arthouse films (Wakolda, 2013, The Counterfeiters, 2007, The Lives of Others, 2006) that treats fascism as a phenomenon we are all familiar with; instead, we will reinvestigate the experience of totalitarianism from a child’s point of view.

Documentaries about fascist rulers tend to make use of orchestral music – most often, the cruel chords of Prokofiev evoke history’s dark days. But Scott Walker’s score does something different here: while a shriek of violins forces us to stand to attention, it also pricks up our senses during routine scenes, in the style of a pulp thriller. It makes us shiver during sequences of family life, as we watch a young boy’s personality come together. Thus the will to power is both exhilarating and terrifying; even from childhood, this would-be dictator has a vision of how the world might be shaped – like an ideal geometry or a set of chords.

The opening credits look like overlapping blueprints, imperfectly blotted sheets – an effect that is somehow frightening, as if mundane details are being mounted into an irrefutable case. But while the film purports to “know” the nature of evil by identifying it in embryonic form, it also questions the bluntness of such an approach. Only the most naïve viewer would perceive the garden-variety problems of this boy – parental adultery, an iron-willed father, a lack of gender differentiation – as latent signs of fascism. If the camera treats Prescott (Tom Sweet) as a kind of Damien or demon child, this only reflects the fantasy of evil as a discrete, coherent entity. When the film’s adult characters try to pin down the definition of sin (literally holding forth from their armchairs), this is seen as facile theorizing.

The Childhood of a Leader

As the film progresses, we may feel that this boy is not nearly wicked enough – that time is running out for him to become a tyrant of world-shaking proportions. Where is the monster inside the commonplace brat? The film is divided into elegant chapter titles that assure us that something dreadful is around the corner, but their wording is too droll to be taken seriously.

Rather than a study of the origins of evil, the film is in fact viewed through the eyes of evil – the scrutinizing gaze of pathology. When we diagnose an “ordinary” family drama through the lens of world history, we may be missing the point. After all, when Preston’s father and his colleagues carve up Europe at the end of World War I – an act that will have disastrous consequences – the film purports to tell us that the real devil is next door, incubating in the nursery. Is this convincing? Not in any literal sense – we are merely invited to note the emotional similarities between a child’s cunning and the will of a dictator.

Like the work of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, The Childhood of a Leader seems provokingly sterile. Its leading ladies, Bérénice Bejo and Stacy Martin, are both listless speakers of English – potentially sinister but blank. Instead, evil is expressed visually – through the alarmed look of black on white and opacity against blur, the sudden sharpness of an image. Overall, the film seems to have a lack of affect – until the last scene, set years later.

We see officials in a conference room, like the one in which Preston’s father and his colleagues redesigned Europe so long ago. They finalize documents and exchange dry comments. One of them enters a car, which travels through an enthralled crowd; at this point, both the camera and the turbo soundtrack fire up. The camera makes furious stabs at the sky, like a fist pumping the air, repeatedly lashing an invisible enemy. Finally we realize where power lies – in the coolness of the war room and the intoxicating energy of the masses. It is a sensational ending, reflecting an insider’s experience of totalitarianism – equal parts thrilling and horrifying.

When it comes to explaining the machinations of power – and the necessary complicity of the camera – no one does it better than Marco Bellocchio. For his latest work, Blood of My Blood (Sangue del mio sangue), the jury unanimously awarded him the FIPRESCI Prize for best feature in competition. He deserves this and more, for a revolutionary, still under-recognized body of work. One of Bellocchio’s innovations has been to portray multiple perspectives and time periods within a single frame, through his distinctive use of light – a chiaroscuro that conceals as much as it reveals. In his films, events are constantly being remolded and shaped by light, and therefore subject to change: the real can be rescinded and judgments overturned. This has devastating political consequences: why does fog conveniently descend to obscure facts when the social hierarchy is threatened? In Bellocchio, the play of light is a play of power – whoever controls the light has the ability to determine what makes history and what gets left out in the process. Hence his frequent use of chambers and cells: dark, primordial spaces in which experience is still half-formed, not yet crystallized into narrative.

Bellocchio’s films are often set in this kind of underworld (My Mother’s Smile, 2002, Buongiorno, Notte, 2003, The Wedding Director, 2006), where events take on their final shape through small movements of light and shade. However, everything is so dimly lit that the mind goes a little hazy. With a bit of convincing, we might be persuaded that what we have witnessed is only a hallucination, a projection of our distracted minds. Nevertheless, this incubation phase is crucial in terms of the formation of history: during this time, incidents swirl together to produce what experts will later regard as an irrevocable event. All kinds of notions are subject to change: suicide, sainthood, chastity, witchcraft, and even rape can be reclassified in the constant shuffling of values, since these are subjects that rely on technical definitions. After a certain period, the chamber is opened and an “event” is cleanly ejected: a version of history that happens to favor the status quo. Up until now, the real is still reversible – but once the consensus has been determined, it is written in stone.

From the start of Blood of My Blood, we can sense the power that is contained within the mysterious malleability of light. Within a scene, some actions are clearly etched while others lack sharp outlines, making them harder to digest – and easy to contest. There are elements too fragile, too diffuse to survive the transition into narrative: history is a very fine sieve, and not everything can pass through intact.

The shifting light in this film indicates multiple points of view at work – most significantly, it suggests that different temporal planes can inhabit the same scene. As in Henry James’ The American, each character comes with his or her own time frame and set of narrative rules. People in the same room don’t necessarily exist in the same genre – one character may belong to the gothic, while another comes from the world of the American short story. The young nobleman Federico (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) may as well be a Jamesian protagonist, for all his understanding of diabolical European institutions. In 17th-century Italy, he visits the convent where his brother reportedly committed suicide after being seduced by an attractive nun, Sister Benedetta (Lidiya Liberman). The scandal would prevent the brother from being buried in holy ground, but the clergy are open to a bargain: the verdict of suicide will be recanted if Federico can get the nun to admit to communing with the devil.

Blood of My Blood

Here, we can already see there is leeway in the documenting of events: tiny technicalities separate absolution from damnation. In order to get Federico’s brother over the line, token testimony from the nun is required, preferably backed up with sobbing. The priest in charge of the inquisition turns out to be wily and coaxing, much more than the femme fatale he claims to denounce; through torture, the clergy extract confessions in the manner of a police state, driven by a pedantic need to classify. When Benedetta starts to cry, the priests fixate on her tears as if they were stigmata or hymenal bleeding; this is a culture driven by “signs” and marks. If all the signs line up, they believe the doors to heaven will open. Meanwhile, Benedetta is walled up alive inside a chamber.

The film’s second part opens in the present day, as a brash young man named Federico (again played by Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) enters the same convent of Bobbia. This time, he is accompanied by an oligarch who wants to buy the dilapidated building. However, a mysterious Count (Roberto Herlitzka) already lives there: a recluse who only ventures out at night. In the bright light of the 21st century, there are no more shadows or cobwebs to be seen – and surely there is no suspicion of deviltry? But the Count does resemble the priest who ordered the nun’s torture, and he is feared for his vampiric hold on the people. In this town, the forces of tradition seem as strong as ever – the community is bound by silence over conspiracies involving tax fraud. And what happened to Benedetta, the supposed witch who was imprisoned for life? The Count often thinks about her, but only an English-language soundtrack provides some sympathy for her plight: a layer of words inaccessible to the characters themselves.

If, to quote Bernardo Bertolucci, “we never forget a film’s light,” what do we remember about Blood of My Blood? In Bellocchio, identifying political meanings comes down to analyzing aura: working out spatial perceptions and how they are constructed. There is the light cast by official history, which builds definition and contour, deflecting the eye from unwanted detail. There are the shadows of the underground chamber, where space and time are uncertain – Bellocchio tricks our senses by playing “dream sequence” music over significant acts. And then there is the sudden halt of light and sound, which causes us to believe we’ve dozed off: a way of breaking off the spell you never knew you were under. Using light, Bellocchio gets audiences to doubt their memories, allowing a new narrative to be brought to the foreground – and thus replicating the system of control he has long been obsessed by. In this film, he refers to the stranglehold of the Italian government and the Catholic Church, but it is a power structure seen all over the world.

When Venice announced it was giving a lifetime achievement award to Brian de Palma, I looked forward to a reel of career highlights: all those spirals and swish pans circling around a juicy climax. One could link up the tracking sequences from, say, Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), and Femme Fatale (2002) – all shot from the perspective of a lustful stalker – and come up with a hypnotic piece of film. I’m a case-by-case admirer of De Palma; his work is formalist eye candy – sometimes irritating, but always addictive.

Dressed to Kill

Sisters (1973) remains a tantalizing pleasure and an early sign of the director’s cruel, baiting wit – the plot sees a feminist outwitted by a fashion model. Dressed to Kill and Femme Fatale are irresistible glitz, using images of softness and luxury to fog up the analytical gaze. Raising Cain (1992) is an underrated twist on the erotic thriller, in that sex is filmed from the point of view of the cuckold: the lush central romance between Lolita Davidovich and Steven Bauer unfolds before horrified eyes. On the other hand, films don’t get much worse than The Black Dahlia (2006), a toneless noir starring Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank as two of the most awkward femmes fatales of all time – does De Palma have trouble getting women to be slinky?

De Palma’s vision is based on lusciousness and the knife: no one has matched softcore and sadism to such keen effect. That very ’80s ambience of lingerie and mood lighting is designed to warm you up, then chill you to the bone: his sleek, sweatless bodies are waiting to be slashed. The conflation of seduction with violence may be troubling, but one struggles to argue with a director so self-aware – you can’t tell him anything he doesn’t know or won’t dismiss as humorless. However, some of his fetishes do get wearying. Surrender the pink: I can’t help but notice that De Palma likes to show women with just a sliver of areolae, again and again. Instead of wanton toplessness, what we get is a coy blush of nudity. With Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill, Deborah Shelton in Body Double, and Melanie Griffith in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), he trots out the old peekaboo shot before covering them up: a touch of exposed pink leaves the women’s coolness and whiteness intact. It’s a predictable tease: the girls remain idealized and unviolated, safely sealed for another day.

The awards presentation was paired with the screening of a new documentary, De Palma, by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, in which the director proves to be a very sane, lucid talker. I agree that Cliff Robertson ruined Obsession (1976) in his attempt to overshadow Geneviève Bujold: she gives a great, sensitive performance that reminds us that Hitchcock worked with Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman as well as his cool blondes. I’m also impressed by the calmness with which an artist can resolve to make big hits (Mission: Impossible, 1996), bending a franchise to his sensibility.

But what ultimately pulls us towards De Palma is the thrill of the anti-human: the idea of taking a rigorously formal approach to emotion, slicing through sentiment. There is something exciting about seeing murder as an exercise in minimalism, to be determined by color coding and a gem-like perfection of editing. The white of the eye, the pink of the nipple – they represent a voyeur who is aroused and chilled at the same time. And that is the electrifying effect of De Palma – the fact that he appeals to us through the values of both commercial porn and abstract art, reflecting a world-view that is lip-smacking but bloodless, puerile yet highly sophisticated.

In terms of “putting the audience through it,” there is the approach of a Hitchcock, De Palma, or Brady Corbet, in which we can enjoy the precision of structure while being tortured by it. In The Childhood of a Leader, Corbet invites us to admire a vision of brutal clarity and linearity, even as those sight lines hone a future of fascism. But there is also a manner of “putting through it” designed to give viewers the worthy sense of suffering. One of Venice’s most anticipated premieres, Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, belongs in the latter category. Of course the movie is “disturbing” – how could it not be, depicting the lives of child soldiers in West Africa? There is nothing really wrong with this film, but it is not sufficiently complex given the incendiary nature of its subject. It is at pains to make itself intelligible to a concerned Western audience, taking us on the expected journey from impossibly cute to confronting. Fukunaga could have achieved more with a vision of quiet, lucid horror, rather than this amped-up presentation with blood on the lens. It was a promising idea to give the main character, Agu (Abraham Attah), a voiceover, but this too obviously represents a conscience. I feel there should have been some mystery surrounding the breakup of identity – as in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005), where displacement causes Pocahontas’ thoughts to separate into multiple voices, without her knowing the source.

That leaves the performance of Idris Elba as the main point of interest: his warlord is a charismatic monster, in the tradition of Michael Douglas’ Liberace and Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin. Lately there has been controversy over whether Elba should be the next James Bond, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh protesting that a black Briton cannot play a Scot (even though Ian Fleming gave Bond Scottish antecedents after seeing Sean Connery’s performance). But Elba is very close to Connery, kingly in size and self-regard, with the “brief, unromantic” hardness that Fleming wanted for Bond. The character was conceived as a mixture of virility and an “anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.” Stone-eyed, with immense vocal power and a sly affect, Elba would seem to fit the bill, giving Bond glamor and brutality, as well as a characteristic low cunning.

Conservative commentators say a black Bond would be an outrageous sop to political correctness. Which begs the question: what is James Bond about these days? Is he Scottish in the same way that Hamlet is Danish? I tend to feel that Hamlet is more about being young, a glorious rose of youth, than being Scandinavian – therefore age might be more indispensable than color in casting. Similarly, Judi Dench’s skin would not preclude her playing Shakespeare’s Cleopatra (who is “with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black”) if we accept that Cleopatra now represents a concept, an ideal of liberty and voluptuousness, more than any specific culture; in fact, Dench’s presence stops us from being overly attached to historical context. Limbaugh’s argument that a white actor could not play Barack Obama is a different case – today, the name Obama still stands for a person rather than a myth. We don’t have sufficient distance from his legacy to see him as purely symbolic.

So I want to ask you: at this point, is James Bond about being distinctively Scottish? Or does he embody more of a mental type, the successful sadist? Some might answer the former – but if not, by all means, Elba is your man.