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Dormant Beauty | Review

Sleepytime Drama: Bellocchio Messy Message Movie

Dormant Beauty Marco Bellocchio posterAfter yet another career peak with his 2009 film Vincere, Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio continues his examination of Italian society with Dormant Beauty, a treatise on Italy’s hot button issue of euthanasia. Bellocchio managed to score one of the cinema’s most talented actresses ever to appear on screen when he signed French actress Isabelle Huppert (no stranger to Italian cinema (see a 1996 Goethe adaptation, Elective Affinities from Vittorio and Paolo Taviani), so it’s so unfortunate that this latest endeavor is so unconvincing in all regards.

At the core, based on a true story, the film revolves around three separate storylines, all going on in the last 8 days of Eluana Englaro’s life in February, 2009. Her father, Beppe Englaro, had decided to take his daughter off of life support after she’d been in a coma for 17 years, which divided the country concerning euthanasia because the father insisted on seeing that his actions were considered legal. The case was then turned into a parliamentary vote. Our main story thread concerns politician Uliano Beffardi (Toni Servillo), a first term senator called on to vote against euthanasia, which goes against his own thought processes due to a tragic incident from his past. But this puts him at odds with his Catholic daughter, Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), who has recently developed a hot and heavy relationship with Roberto (Michele Riondino). Roberto doesn’t share the same beliefs as Maria, and his outrageous and angry mentally ill brother despises her.

Meanwhile, a concurrent story features a famous movie actress known as “the Divine Mother” (Isabelle Huppert) who has put her career on hold and alienated her husband and son to care for her daughter, asleep in a coma. She is a righteous Catholic, parading nuns in and out of the house as she makes excursions only to church. Glancing at herself once too often in the mirror, she demands that all of them be removed from the house. She also has fitful dreams where she spouts lines of Lady Macbeth’s dialogue. And lastly, there’s a third storyline featuring a physician (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) who is so strongly attracted to a suicidal drug addict (Maya Sansa), he sleeps next to her bed to prevent her from jumping out the window, sharing lofty conversations about the preciousness of life.

On the positive side, there’s certainly nothing preachy about Dormant Beauty, and Bellocchio certainly never gives us any indication about what side of the debate he stands on. But for a film that’s basically about the sanctity of life that people believe must be saved at all costs, the film is certainly devoid of it. Sure, there are moments of interest between Rohrwacher (always an interesting presence, also in I Am Love, 2009) and the always dependable Servillo. Sure, Isabelle Huppert is an arresting choice, her typical coldness channeled into perpetual mourning for her stricken child. That said, however, moments like having Huppert mutter “Out, out, damn spot,” in her sleep are too entirely ridiculous and melodramatic to ring true. The same can be said for the third storyline concerning a weary, handsome doctor in an understaffed hospital staying all night with the beautiful drug addict. Italy must have somewhere to detain those prone to suicide in their medical facilities without resorting to something so silly.

Please note that due to squabbles at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, where no Italian entries received the top prizes, Bellocchio has publicly sworn off showing anything at the renowned festival. An extremely talented filmmaker, it’s too bad that this may be the case. But what’s worse is this contrived affair bearing his name, a tiresome, expository piece of film that only manages to alienate us from the very issue it’s trying to get us to consider.

Reviewed on September 14 at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival – SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS Programme.
115 Min

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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