“In Italy, the family is an almost holy institution, a pillar of society, and to criticize it is considered outrageous.” — Marco Bellocchio
In many ways, the Spirit of 1968 started three years earlier in Italy, thanks to Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca), released in the relative calm of October 1965. The incendiary film sent shock-waves through Italian culture and was vilified for its irreverent and irresponsible attitude towards traditional Italian family values and Catholicism.
At a mere 26, Bellocchio is the first director in our Italian film series that comes from the babyboom, a generation of bourgeois-bred, highly-educated children rebelling against the conventions of their parents. “Disrespectful” mouthy kids with attitudes was nothing new, of course, but the 1960s crop held considerable cultural clout due to the massive shift in postwar demographics. And they weren’t just pissed off about the usuals, like not having access to a car and unrealistic curfews. They were pissed off about war, about church, about sex, about inequality, and, above all, about traditional family structures that they considered oppressive and outdated. In Italian life, the sacrosanct nature of the core family was something always held in high regard: in Rossellini’s Rome Open City, the family structure is disrupted and ultimately destroyed by outside forces, the Nazis and Mussolini’s fascists; in De Sica’s Two Women, mother and daughter struggle united against all obstacles to survive; and in virtually all Italian neorealist cinema, children embody the hope of the future, doing their bit dutifully in the reconstruction of their nation, never questioning the sanctity of the church or the supreme wisdom of their elders. Even the modernists to follow toed this line: Fellini’s closing shot for 8 1/2 is of his boy alter ego, his anima/animus; and Antonioni’s familial bond between mother and son in Red Desert is unquestioned, if a tad destabilized.
So, given its predecessors, Bellocchio’s anti-family, anti-hope, anti-everything manifesto was the molotov cocktail of Italian modernism, intended to burn both Pope and parents. Aesthetically, it was a return to extreme minimalism, far away from the increasingly baroque works of Fellini and Rossellini, both of which Bellocchio disregarded as has-been, sell-outs; he particularly loathed Fellini’s conflicted hand-wringing over Catholicism. But this wasn’t strictly an issue of young turk vs. his elders, as Bellocchio admitted his admiration for the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel, a man with a penchant for mocking religion and societal hypocrisy. Indeed, ideologically-speaking, Bellocchio shares more with Buñuel than with any of his Italian counterparts, the notable exception being Marco Ferreri and his caustically satirical “western” Don’t Touch the White Woman!
As always, the reality of Bellocchio’s vision is somewhere in the middle. He openly admits the film is not autobiographical in any way. His parents helped to finance the film, and it was shot at his mother’s country villa, so not quite the sea of bourgeois discontent he belittles so mercilessly on the screen. Still, Bellocchio’s bleak vision is the first taste of what would quickly balloon into a full-scale international counterculture in a few year’s time, with riots in the streets of Paris, the “levitating” of the Pentagon in the U.S., and Baader-Ensslin’s “Red Army Faction” carrying out terrorist attacks on the Springer Press corporate headquarters in Hamburg.