Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Fists in the Pocket (1965)

Fists in the Pocket (1965) ****
Directed by: Marco Bellocchio.
Written by: Marco Bellocchio.
Starring: Lou Castel (Alessandro), Paola Pitagora (Giulia), Marino Masé (Augusto), Liliana Gerace (Mother), Stefania Troglio (Chambermaid), Jeannie McNeil (Lucia), Gianni Schicchi (Tonino), Alfredo Filippazzi (Doctor), Pier Luigi Troglio (Leone).

Marco Bellocchio is a very interesting Italian director. He made a big splash with his debut film, Fists in the Pocket (1965), funded by his family, but his career has been up and down ever since. He has never garnered the recognition of many of his contemporaries in Italy, and often his films have been hated or ignored. But he is currently undergoing a little bit of a renaissance – his 2002 film My Mother’s Smile was highly acclaimed (although unseen by me) as was his most recent film – 2009’s Vincere, which I saw at TIFF that year. Because his films have not been as popular as some other directors, they can be hard to find. Personally, up until I watched this film, the only one I had seen was Vincere. On the basis of those two films, I wanted to see more of his work.

Fists in the Pocket is not an easy film to love. It is a film without a redeeming character. The star is Lou Castel, playing Alessandro, a budding young psychopath, who targets his family. His older brother Augusto (Marino Mase) is supporting the family, in their large rundown house in the country – but is tired of doing so. Their elderly mother is blind and needs constant care, and Augusto is engaged to a beautiful young woman, and wants to move to the city. But Alessandro needs Augusto around. Thinking that if he got the mother out of the way, Augusto may stay, Alessandro pushes her off a cliff. When Augusto seems more determined than ever to leave, Alessandro sets his sights on his younger brother – who is mentally retarded. Then there is their sister Giulia (Paoloa Pitagora), isn’t much better, and is certainly sexually attracted to both Augusto and Alessandro – and may have actually acted out her fantasies with the later. She is amused by Alessandro’s games, until she realizes that he may set his sights on her.

Fists in the Pocket is credited alongside the work of Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini as a new step in Italian cinema that was still very much in the neo-realist mode of post WWII in the mid 1960s. This film lashes out against that, in a surreal, dark comedy where Bellocchio pays homage to two of his heroes – Michelangelo Antonnini and Luis Bunuel – two directors who ironically issues very public put downs of this film.

The film exposes the middle class, Catholic hypocrisy that Bellocchio, who was then a Marxist, saw all around him. This is a movie about a family of horrible people, who seem to know in advance what their ultimate end will, and perhaps even welcome it. Augusto is portrayed as the type of bourgeois that are hated by Marxists – people who care about money and material things, rejecting humanity. It is not a flattering portrait of him, but it is also not one without sympathy, which is what separates Fists in the Pocket from other such screeds about middle class values. You have to almost admire Augusto for not simply running out on his eternally screwed up family – many others would have. The mother is seen as pathetic, collecting thousands of magazines, even though she’s blind and cannot read them, and constantly whining right up to the point when she’s pushed off that cliff. Giulia may simply be bored – there is little else to do out in the country, and she enjoys the darkness that Alessandro indulges in. In the role Pitagora is truly remarkable, because she is the character in the film that is the hardest to read. She’s unstable yes, but just how unstable? How far has she gone with Alessandro? When she writes a note to Augusto’s fiancée, why is she trying to break them up? Augusto’s fiancée, from outside the family, correctly sees this family as insane and destructive, and simply wants to get Alessandro away from them. You can hardly blame her for that either.

The best performance in the movie is clearly by Castel as Alessandro, the young psychopath. Castel is great in the scenes where he kills his mother and later his brother, although he takes no joy in either killing. Nor does he take any joy in a party that Augusto brings him along to – we see him constantly on the outside looking in, trying to figure out just how everyone else in the room ticks. Yet Bellocchio may in fact have more sympathy for Alessandro than anyone else. He is the only one who at least sees the hypocrisy, the meaninglessness of the family’s life more clearly than anyone else – and he does something about it. It’s certainly not the right thing, but at least it’s something.

Bellocchio said that the best thing about debut films is that because you have no past, you are free to take whatever risks you want to. No one expects anything from you. And perhaps that’s why Fists in the Pocket seems so daring, even today 46 years after it was first made. Bellocchio may not have had quite the career that he wanted to after making Fists in the Pocket – but with this film, he forever altered the landscape of Italian cinema, and cinema around the world. You may never look at teenage outcasts the same after seeing this film.

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