Old World films, unlike New World films, are usually not about what they seem to be about

October 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Marco Bellocchio’s film L’Ora del relgione (“Religion Class” or “Religious Education”) is not about religion at all.

How do I know?  I know precisely because there is so much religion in it, far more of it than one would ever find in Rome (complete with Fellini-like evening parties heavily attended by nuns and clerics and Jesus-look alike pilgrims with crowns-of-thorns and crosses wondering casually in the streets) but also because what there is of it is…  so odd — the slick-haired, body-built cardinal in ultra-chic glasses, the beatification campaign run like an electoral campaign complete with printed leaflets and gigantesque martyr-posters, etc.

Predictably, religious types responded to the film with criticism of this oddity as an inaccuracy of presentation; these complaints belong with their other complaint — that there is no God in the film — in the Didn’t Get The Movie file.  The non-religious-types responded with similar degree of incomprehension, mostly shrugging:  God stuff, they said to a man.  But Old World films, like Old World novels — and unlike New World films and novels — are usually not about what they seem to be about.  The Old World peoples call this phenomenon – a kind of illocution — “depth” and those who don’t get it — “shallow”.  (By which they usually mean Americans).

In the best European tradition of never speaking to the central topic, of circumlocution and symbolic representation, the film is about something else altogether:  it is about a man who had hated his mother, who had rejected her with all her foibles (including religion and the church), years after her death having to deal with the fact that his mother continues to influence his life through the people around him.  “I don’t want to speak ill of my mother”, he says several times, reflecting the double prohibition to speak ill of one’s parents or of the dead; it is a prohibition of the society around him, but a prohibition he accepts because it seems decent and moral to him:  and that is precisely the drama.  If you hate your mother, and with reason, then it would be easier to junk the rules about filial piety, the official ideology that there is nothing like one’s mother’s love, and speak up.  If you do not, then you are liable to find the pressure from outside unbearable — “how can you say that about your own mother?”  etc.

To my mind, this is what the film is about: the fact that the world around us sanctifies the mother-child relationship and judges the unfilial child severely as unnatural, perverse; and that a decent child, especially one with his own children, may well like to honor that principle, or at least not contradict it publicly; but what if that decent child has a perfectly valid reason to hate?

In a more general sense, the film is about the difficulty of independence, of choosing one’s own path, against the grain.  This point is made by two symbols — the duel scene which the hero fails (his opponent judges him too inept with foil to be fit for the battle); and the video the hero has been building for himself:  one of the collapse of the Vottoriano (Altare della Patria): a kind of daydream about the collapse of all authority.

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