Fists In The Pocket

After a brief sabbatical from my sidewhites duties, I return this week with a fine Italian offering of familial turmoil and decay, with undertones of incest, overtones of matricide and fratricide, dashes of slapstick, and a protagonist plagued by migraines and epilepsy. Appropriate holiday fare, no? Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (1965) is a wonderfully engaging, beautifully filmed piece that could be the setting of a Faulkner novel, as it peers into the shadowy corners of a rural Italian country manor and the dysfunctional family residing within. The film rarely leaves the house and thus really is simply about these people. And yet, there is an unrest throughout the film, much like that parenthetical statement, “and yet…,” that seems to pervade everything, every last shot of the film, down even to the very faces of the actors, that acts as a harbinger of unrest and change on the horizon.

At the outset, the film is about a choice that the protagonist, Alessandro (Ale or Sandro, for short) makes to free his older brother, Augusto, who, as the only healthy and financially capable amongst them, has born the brunt of responsibility for many years, from the burden of his ill and eccentric family. Wouldn’t it be better, he asks his older brother, if he did not have to support their blind mother and retarded, epileptic younger brother, not to mention Sandro himself with his attacks and their sister who is, well, lazy and weirdly sexual with all the brothers? Augusto does not take Sandro’s question seriously, but on the other hand, he doesn’t take it seriously, leaving us to wonder whether he really would just like to pick up and leave it all behind. Sandro’s initial plan of throwing his family off a cliff, himself included, while careening down a twisty road in the family car gets sidetracked, and everyone arrives back home safely, leaving Augusto with the knowledge that Sandro is, for the most part, still pretty incompetent.

But Sandro’s initiative in concocting such a plan and almost carrying it out proves to Augusto that he is ready for more responsibility and can take on some of the routine duties of the household, such as driving their mother to the family cemetery plot to visit their father’s grave. It is on one such drive that Sandro and his mother pull over at the precise spot where Sandro had planned to execute his entire family, save Augusto, to catch some fresh air. Sandro leads his mother to the edge of the cliff, explaining that there is a wall upon which she can sit, and then simply pushes her with one finger over the edge. This is no violent outburst, nor is it quite cold and calculating. He doesn’t really want to touch her, and this seems to be the point. It’s as if he’s waiting to see what happens too. The whole scene is like some strange ceremony where nothing happens and yet the consequences are incredible, some weird communion where the priest touches his finger to your tongue and you vanish into thin air.

Out with the old, and burn it! There are two scenes that stuck with me the most from Fists in the Pocket, and both are the aforementioned harbingers of something bigger going on. The first is when the family is mourning the death of their mother. The house is full of fellow mourners and the coffin is set up in the middle of the room with curtains drawn around it. Sandro relieves his sister, Giulia, of her duty of sitting with their mother, and she goes to sit on the other side of the curtain to talk to her brother. Hearing a noise, she looks over the curtain to see her brother doing calisthenics over their mother’s body, using the coffin as a balance beam. It seems that finally carrying through with his plan, if only in part, gave young Sandro a sense of accomplishment he had rarely before felt. Sandro reveals what he has done, Giulia is smitten, and the two later decide to begin cleaning the house, beginning with their mother’s room. It is snowing outside as they throw countless armfuls of furniture and papers and the rest of their mother’s possessions out into the yard. They set fire to the pile and watch it burn, laughing and happy with themselves. This scene is not merely celebration of the wanton rebellion of the young against the old, however. It is all so strikingly reckless and careless, and the camera lingers on the smoldering pile of rubbish long after the two have gone back inside as Leone, the retarded younger brother, comes by and begins to pick out what is salvageable, including his mother’s old reading glasses (we don’t know how long she’d been blind). It’s a stirring scene, to say the least, and I think it is important to note that Bellocchio was a young filmmaker at the time. Is there room for responsibility within revolution?

Sandro’s quest is for freedom. With their mother out of the picture, Augusto moves to the city, leaving Sandro and Giulia in the big country house, their only burden being young Leone. This is not a problem for Sandro, though, as he now knows how to relieve himself of his burdens. He gives Leone an overdose of his epilepsy medicine, and while he is passed out in the bath, simply pushes him under with his fingertips and holds him there until he drowns, some strange baptism in the church of the mind of Allesandro. Giulia realizes what Sandro has become, and falls ill. I won’t ruin the ending of the film, because it’s really worth seeking out and watching Sandro try to discover who he is and what he wants. There is a scene earlier in the film, after he has killed his mother, where he is at a party in the city at the apartment of his brother’s fiance. Everyone is dancing some ridiculous line dance and Sandro is sitting on a bench at the front of the room, facing them. He is apart from them quite literally, sitting and not dancing, but also socially, living secluded out in the country. He seems to disdain them all and yet also to want to be a part of their scene, having just before been approached by a young woman. It is unclear whether the freedom Sandro seeks lies in breaking free from his familial bonds to forge new bonds with people like this or, quite literally, breaking free of bonds entirely and killing them all, every last one of them.

I was amazed to learn that Fists in the Pocket was Marco Bellocchio’s first film. I don’t know why, as first films are often fine films. This was just so good. As so often is the case, this is likely due to the magnificent editing of Silvano Agosti. The film flows effortlessly, and no frame is superfluous. On Bellocchio’s part, and cinematographer Alberto Marrama, the film offers beautiful black and white that only enhances scenes such as the bonfire mentioned earlier. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the score by Ennio Morricone, exceptional as usual—I should devote a post to Morricone. Fists was a first for Lou Castel as well, the actor who played Allesandro. Castel was not an actor, and that probably brought an authenticity to the character that an experienced, and certainly a known, actor could potentially have spoiled. He was compared by someone in a special feature on the DVD to Marlon Brando, and I think that’s accurate, both in intensity and style, if not beefy good looks. While he may not have gone on to enjoy the same success as Mr. Brando, Castel is utterly captivating at the center of this strange menagerie, as are his supporting players, one and all, from the beautiful and absurd Giulia to the august Augusto to innocent Leone and blind Mama. What a tale!

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