Many critics’ wrap-ups from Cannes this year included dismissive language directed at Ken Loach’s new film competition film, The Old Oak. As is often the case with late Loach, the consensus has been that the director’s heart (and politics) may be in the right place, but that he sacrifices nuance in the name of agit-prop. Well, the same can be said for Marco Bellocchio — at least as far as his own new competition film is concerned. Kidnapped is a florid docudrama based on the case of Edgardo Mortara (Enea Sala), a six-year-old boy from a Jewish family in Bologna. Edgardo was surreptitiously baptized by the family’s servant (Aurora Camatti) as an infant. Per canon law in what was then the Papal State of Italy, this meant that the Vatican had a legal right — and in their eyes, a moral obligation — to remove Edgardo from the Mortara family and raise him as a Catholic.
Bellocchio has indicated that this is a story he’s wanted to film for quite a while, and the appearance of Kidnapped in 2023 seems hardly coincidental. Bellocchio’s cinema has long exhibited a simultaneous fascination and repulsion with respect to the Catholic church, particularly as seen in films like My Mother’s Smile (2002) and Blood of My Blood (2015). His films have succeeded at showing why religion exerts such a pull on the human psyche, despite the violence and social division that it also often engenders. By contrast, Kidnapped is an outright attack on the Italian Catholic church of the second half of the 19th century, embodied by the glowering, fanatical Pope Pius IX (Paolo Pierobon). In a portrayal that recalls that of Porfirio Diaz in Glauber Rocha’s equally anti-clerical Earth Entranced (1967), the Pope sees the abduction and reeducation of Edgardo as a way for the Vatican to flex its political muscle, the last gasp of a regime on the decline.
Most of Bellocchio’s most interesting films are those that depart from realism, drawing on Italy’s tradition of grand opera. Never one to shy away from outsized gestures, Bellocchio often juices the drama with crashing music stings and sweeping camera movements. There’s some of that in Kidnapped — especially the deployment of sharp, discordant Bernard Hermannisms — but like his last film, The Traitor (2019), Kidnapped finds Bellocchio operating in a rather conventional register. When he crosscuts between Edgardo reciting the Latin Mass and his family engaging in a Hebrew prayer, it’s a bludgeoning maneuver. Even Kidnapped’s flights of fancy — Edgardo freeing Christ from the cross; the Pope being forcibly circumcised by a quartet of menacing mohels — are restricted to dream sequences.
Kidnapped is a film whose point is impossible to miss. Religion becomes dangerous when it succumbs to fundamentalism, and this is never more the case than when the church and the state are one. Bellocchio clearly recognizes the existential threat of Christian nationalism, and acknowledges that a new Medievalism is on the rise. The adult Edgardo (Leonardo Maltese) becomes a priest and fully embraces Christianity (not that he had much choice). But in a moment of emotional crisis, a schism occurs in his mind, and he suddenly condemns the Pope. Fundamentalism is a kind of schizophrenia, at odds with lived reality. This essential trauma, and its irrational rupture, would have been a great subject for Bellocchio at his best. Instead, he’s preaching to his historical moment, hammering home ideas that he has, in his anger, greatly simplified.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 22.