Italian veteran Marco Bellocchio’s adaptation of David Kertzer’s The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara is an occasionally enthralling, yet often staid and repetitive affair.
In 1858, in Bologna, then part of the Papal States, carabinieri acting under the authority of the Inquisitor of Bologna demanded entry to the home of the Jewish merchant Salomone Mortara and his wife Marianna, and removed the couple’s six-year-old son Edgardo to Rome, to be raised Catholic in the House of Catechumens under the aegis of Pope Pius IX.
Six years before, when the infant Edgardo was sick the Mortaras’ Catholic maid, fearing for the bambino’s immortal soul, had baptised him when no one else was in the room—she dotted his forehead with fingers wetted in a pitcher and invoked the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—making him a Christian and necessitating his removal from a home full of infidels.
As argued in The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David Kertzer (an eminent American historian of Italy, whose other major works focus on the complicity of the Vatican in the rise of 20th century antisemitism and Italian fascism), the subsequent scandal of the Mortara affair undermined the political authority of the Pope during the movement for Italian unification. Steven Spielberg came close to adapting Kertzer’s book a few years ago, with Tony Kushner to script and Oscar Isaac to play the adult Edgardo, who eventually became a Catholic priest and remained estranged from his family; presumably this would have been another Spielberg film about the relationship between sons and their absent fathers, and Jewish identity.
Kidnapped, Marco Bellocchio’s drama of the Mortara Affair, is, then, the Catholic version, more interested in dominant hierarchies than minority assimilation. It’s another of the director’s films about people trapped within stifling Italian institutions—the family, the mafia, the political power structures, with the Catholic church above all—and a vintage latter-day Bellocchio film, for better and worse: muscular, didactic, sporadically powerful, ultimately interminable.
Bellocchio introduces young Edgardo playing hide-and-seek in the family home; he takes refuge underneath his mother’s skirts when the police barge in. The wailing child is spirited away in the night, taken on a mysterious boat ride to who knows where; in Bologna, the Mortaras hustle urgently around the city to find answers, and are met with coldness and contempt by the Catholic establishment.
There are jostling urgent late-night carriage rides and deliberately obtrusive, nakedly sentimental string-heavy score. Told (like Sammy Fabelman!) that Jesus was a Jewish boy just like him, Edgardo is quickly enrolled in what amounts to a Catholic boot camp, where he learns to repeat doctrine he doesn’t understand back to his instructors in order to avoid getting in trouble (a universal experience of religious instruction), while his desperate parents rage and weep, seek audiences and pull strings, worried that their son will forget his heritage. (The young Edgardo is played by the sweet-faced Enea Sala, of whom Bellocchio asks rather a lot.) The self-described “reactionary” Pius IX holds fast to doctrine even as his advisors explain the context of political unrest unfolding offscreen.
Bellocchio loves to bring the entire sweep of Italian history to bear on a single individual; in films like his last feature, mafia drama The Traitor, and his 60s breakthrough Fists in the Pocket, characters rebel against hypocritical and repressive clans not so dissimilar to Edgardo’s surrogate family in Rome, with the Holy Father as patriarch. Partly this narrow focus is a matter of limited means; he often uses a torrent of newsreels and plentiful superimposed propaganda slogans to evoke a larger rush of events.
Bellocchio is one of the masters of on-screen expository text, which is invariably stylised and exciting in his films; here it’s red and oversized, moving us through history alongside rather wan directorial flourishes which lack the vigour and variety to stand in for the various personal, spiritual, and political passions channeled through the case.
A scene where the Pope has a nightmare about Orthodox Jews breaking into his bedchambers to circumcise him is a hoot and a half; less successful are the slightly animated political cartoons and a fantasy sequence in which Edgardo imagines removing the nails from the cross so Jesus can come down off it (he just sort of… walks offscreen).
Kidnapped is a large part a rather staid and repetitive affair, with the frothing and entitled Pius underlining his hardline views, Church functionaries expressing casual and callous antisemitism, many scenes of little Edgardo reciting Shema Yisrael, and much cross-cutting between duelling Jewish and Christian religious services, to much portent but little purpose.
When Bellocchio flashes forward and widens the lens, we get underpopulated battle scenes including the frankly absurd arrival in Rome of a dozen or fewer soldiers of the Italian Army, who break through a wall and make a beeline straight for the Vatican so that Edgardo’s older brother can attempt a reunification that goes markedly less well than the nation’s. And now, having run out of things to say, Bellocchio keeps saying them with increasing emphasis until the movie hits the two-hour mark.
Published 26 May 2023