Isabelle Huppert in “Dormant Beauty.” Photo Credit: Francesca Fago.

Isabelle Huppert in “Dormant Beauty.” Photo Credit: Francesca Fago.

What does it mean to be alive? To be dead? And what happens when gruesome circumstances arise to entwine these questions? These are the issues at the throbbing center of Marco Bellocchio’s newest film — Dormant Beauty — but no attempt is made to answer them. Rather, the film ruminates on the way other people answer, along with the psychological and social implications their answers have.

Bellocchio is a legend in Italian cinema. He has directed over 30 films, and in 2011 received the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 68th Venice International Film Festival. It’s impossible to distill his career into a brief synopsis, but the sheer range of subjects he’s addressed — from Benito Mussolini’s love life to mental illness and murder — is impressive. In Dormant Beauty, Bellocchio presents an issue guaranteed to arouse vehemence, and perhaps more interestingly, irrationality (there is, of course, significant overlap between the two) among audiences — the sanctity of life. More specifically, the ever-incendiary question of whether to maintain or discontinue life support for someone in a persistent vegetative state.

It’s a story we’ve grown increasingly accustomed to, which is troubling — and one of the reasons why Bellocchio’s sensitivity to his subject matter is valuable. Eluana Englaro was an Italian woman rendered comatose after a car accident in 1992. She was in a persistent vegetative state for 17 years, during which time her father, Beppino Englaro, requested that she be removed from life support. When it was announced that her feeding tube would be removed, a political and moral debate seized Italy for about a week and culminated in widespread outrage — and in some quarters, relief — when she died on February 9, 2009.

The furor calls to mind comparable episodes in the United States, such as the Terri Schiavo case in 2005 — and more recently, the plights of Marlise Munoz in January and Jahi McMath in February. While these cases aren’t interchangeable, the emotions and arguments they elicit generally are. In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s cabinet proposed a law that would disallow the cessation of Englaro’s life support (much like Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s order to reinsert Terri Schiavo’s feeding tubes). Berlusconi’s proposition though, unlike Bush’s, was subject to a vote in the Italian Parliament — a major driver of the film’s narrative, which is set in the last few days of Englaro’s life.

There are four concurrent stories in Dormant Beauty, each one either directly or peripherally related to the Englaro conflagration. Uliano Beffardi (Toni Servillo) is a fictional Italian Member of Parliament and prominent member of Berlusconi’s former party, Forza Italia. He’s resolved to vote against Berlusconi’s intrusive bill, as he believes it right to let Englaro die. His devoutly religious daughter, Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), is incensed with this idea and implores her father to vote for the bill. On her way to a ceremony in favor of keeping Englaro alive, Maria falls in love with Roberto (Michele Riondino) who holds the opposite view.

Another story revolves around a character bizarrely referred to as the “Divine Mother” in the credits (Isabelle Huppert) whose frenzied commitment to continued life support for her own daughter — also in a persistent vegetative state — is haunting. In this strange role, Huppert delivers the finest performance in the film. She conveys a persuasive sense of defiant fervor tinged with conspicuous, ballooning desperation. Her son, Frederico (Brenno Placido) is disgusted with his mother’s behavior and insists that she’s “killing herself.” He believes his sister should be taken off life support. The fourth story feels out of step with the others. Dr. Pallido (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) is absorbed with the care of a deviant, thieving heroin addict named Rossa (Maya Sansa), who insists on taking her own life. This subject seems fit for a completely different film, as Rossa is making a conscious decision whereas the other life and death questions are in the hands of loved ones, doctors and government officials.

Barring Huppert’s stellar performance (the acting is ably executed all around), the film should have concentrated on the Uliano, Maria and Roberto storylines more thoroughly. The strained relationship between Uliano and his daughter is deeply affecting, and it’s tempered by more than their divergent opinions regarding Englaro — specifically, the circumstances surrounding the death of Uliano’s terminally ill wife (Maria’s mother). The weight of this subplot makes Maria’s callousness toward her father — who continually and unsuccessfully tries to contact her throughout the film — seem less callow. Meanwhile, the love story between Roberto and Maria has a fascinating, combustible element that Bellocchio left limp near the end — Roberto’s vicious, bipolar brother who hates Maria and what she seems to embody.

All too often, these stories lurch toward a climax only to be sidetracked by another, less interesting plotline. The result is a slightly overlong film that sometimes feels half-done. Furthermore, Bellocchio’s attempts to remain dispassionate about the subject matter often sap the film of its power. Just take a look at the facts surrounding the real case, some of which are almost incomprehensibly outrageous — and irritatingly absent from Dormant Beauty. A comment made by Berlusconi early in the film highlights this problem: “The statistics in these days say that about 50 percent of the cases of vegetative state return to normality.” Whether this was inserted to demonstrate Berlusconi’s ignorance of Englaro’s condition or as an attempt to balance competing perspectives in the film, it’s entirely misleading for the audience.

While some level of consciousness can be salvaged in the first two years of a vegetative state, the prognosis rapidly deteriorates thereafter. After 17 years — when Berlusconi made his facile statement — the chances of any meaningful brain function (let alone consciousness) are vanishingly small. To say Englaro could “return to normality” is stupidly mendacious — her autopsy revealed massive brain damage (an observation made by her doctors while she was still alive). Moreover, Englaro had explicitly told her father not to let her languish in such a state should the odious responsibility of making this decision ever be his. Three of her closest friends offered the same testimony. Noting these facts would have skewed the film in a particular political and moral direction, though — something Bellocchio was entirely too queasy about.

To be fair, it clearly wasn’t Bellocchio’s intention to outline an argument in the film. He was more concerned with presenting an intimate portrait of human behavior when nightmares like this become reality. He captures the irrationality that often clouds good intentions — an onlooker shouting, “Eluana, wake up! They want to kill you!” as her ambulance passes by, or the Divine Mother’s mad fixation on what appears to be another hopeless situation. And one of the more thoughtful, compassionate and sincere characters — Uliano — is resolutely opposed to Berlusconi’s farcical bill. But you never get reasons from the characters, just instincts and intuitions. Oddly, this makes them all seem a little less human.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

“Dormant Beauty” has a run time of 115 minutes and is currently playing exclusively at New York City’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Video courtesy of cinepolitica.

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