Legendary Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio (“Vincere”) isn’t sure how well his latest, “Dormant Beauty,” will play in America, given how it’s centered around an event from his country in 2009. He needn’t worry too much: The incident in question is scarily similar to the Terri Schiavo case, revolving around a woman, Eluana Englaro, who was removed from life support after spending 19 years in a persistent vegetative state, causing a heated national debate.
But Bellocchio doesn’t tell the story directly. He drifts between various characters, including a politician (Toni Servillo, of “The Great Beauty”) wrestling with being forced to vote against euthanasia and an actress (Isabelle Huppert) who has taken a break to care for her own comatose daughter. Most of these aren’t people Bellocchio — a committed leftist and atheist — agrees with.
Eluana Englaro is in the background in this film. Did you always want to focus on other characters?
Like many other Italians I was very caught up in the story. It was always in the newspapers and on TV. But I was a partial observer, on the side of Eluana and her father. I didn’t initially want to make a film about it. It wasn’t until three years later that I came up with this idea. I didn’t want it to be a chronicle of what happened in those days but about invented characters. And as I started to conceive the film, my anger at the powers that be and my disapproval of a certain political party became secondary to the primary interest of telling a story with a set of characters that include the story of Eluana.
Despite the subject matter and your well-known secularism, you don’t put forth an agenda. The religious characters aren’t portrayed as monsters.
I feel closest to the father of Eluana. I actually met him and we became friends. But I felt the need to tell story of characters who had different ideas, different points of view. And the film is built on the differences between them. I didn’t set out to give each point of view a voice. That was something borne more for the need of the film. My interest is telling the story and describing various ideas I don’t necessarily share.
Is it difficult writing characters who have beliefs with which you don’t agree?
Whatever a character says, the words they might voice, the concepts they may express — they’re something you as a director have to embrace. You have to, in a way, make them your own. I did not live these things directly, but at the same time part of me can relate to them, in some ways.
Parts of you seem to be in the character played by Toni Servillo, whose political party is moving far away from him.
That character represents the crisis of many politicians from the former Italian Socialist party who ended up joining [Silvio] Berlusconi’s party because they felt abandoned by the traditional left. That created a crisis of conscience. I saw this in many people I knew, and for them it was a source of suffering. They had a secular background and for the sake of obeying party discipline, they were being asked to vote for a law they did not believe in at all.
What was the reaction like in Italy when you were drumming up these old wounds?
The film did spark a debate in Italy and in Europe, but nothing you would call scandalous. The real media clamor around these events happened when they were taking place. They played for weeks on television. And that was the moment we saw the two Italys in this huge clash with each other.
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