I pugni in tasca. A murderous portrait of family dysfunction [en]

A directorial debut is a challenging and responsible work as it can jumpstart a filmmaker’s career and become his calling card. That’s why today we want to remember one of the most astonishing debuts in cinematic history.

Fists in the Pocket (1965) is the first feature of Marco Bellocchio, Italian film director and the current president of Cineteca di Bologna. As compelling and striking now as it was almost 60 years ago, the movie not only playfully rejects traditional values and concepts, but in its particular visual intensity it explores demons of adolescence and the drive of the youthful strive for liberty. Shot in 1965, it decisively breaks with the fundamental choices of neorealism and acquires a form of protest that was previously unimaginable. Truly innovative and visionary, accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s score, the movie is still regarded as the best debut in Italian cinema after the Obsession of Luchino Visconti.

Alessandro, the hero of Lou Castel who gives here one of the most mesmerizing screen performances, is crushed by family ties that refuse to break, seeing how much effort it costs his older brother Augusto (Marino Maze) to support the family and bear the burden of moral obligations and material expenses for the maintenance of a blind mother (Liliana Gerace), an unmarried sister Giulia (Paola Pitagora), who harbors incestuous feelings for her siblings, and another, younger brother, mentally underdeveloped Leone (Pier Luigi Troglio). Alessandro himself suffers from epilepsy, the most spectacular and ‘theatrical’ of all mental illnesses, and is prone to committing wild, thoughtless acts, which slowly drag him into the abyss, while also reveal the disturbed nature of those around him. The movie portrays the painful decomposition of family ties that takes place within the four walls of a provincial house, which in turn becomes a metaphor for the institution of the family – dilapidated, based on false conventions, silencing and encouraging insanity. At the same time it is a declaration of decadence not only of a disintegrating family, but a whole class with Alessandro as its privileged witness.

Alessandro staring at the spectators. A frame from the film Fists in the Pocket.

Fists in the Pocket is an iconography of a world in transition, where ancient Greek tragedies meet Western drama and Gothic tales. It begins to provoke the viewer from the first frames, portraying madness, physical and psychological decay, ending with a powerful and unforgettable scene that can be compared to an exorcism to the strain of an aria from Verdi’s La Traviata.

It is commonly considered that the sixties were the best time for cinema in Italy. The industry, created under Mussolini and involving the most talented people of the era, has just experienced a renewal of neorealism – aesthetics and a method that has become a universal wrench for the modernization of any cinematography in need of change. Bellocchio made his first film very early, when he was only 26 years old. The previous generation of Italian auteurs had debuts at a much later age: Visconti at 37, Fellini at 31, while Rossellini approached a short meter at the beginning of the fourth decade and made a full one at 35. Bellocchio, on the contrary, wrote the script of Fists in the Pocket back in his student years. He used the money for the shooting borrowed from his relatives (which did not happen so often in the sixties) and shot the movie in the country house of his mother, where he spent childhood years.

Giulia sunbathing at the family villa. A frame from the film Fists in the Pocket.

Another distinctive feature of the film production is the laconism of the form: a black-and-white image, a calm, with a touch of sadness and melancholy manner of narration and a relatively simple structure devoid of the manipulations with screen time and space. The film could easily turn into a farce or black comedy, but with intense performance and convincing psychological reactions of Lou Castel, Bellocchio magically turns the plot outline into something realistic, into a very piercing and frank spectacle that captures the attention of the viewer from beginning to end.

The movie’s release was quite controversial. The director was accused of discrediting Catholicism and the institution of the family, the feature was rejected by the Venice film festival and criticized by Bunuel and Antonioni, whom the director greatly admired. However, Fists in the Pocket was awarded at Locarno film festival, where it was embraced by a younger generation of critics for its innovative ideas and methods. Bernardo Bertolucci, who started his career at the same time with Bellocchio, has described the movie as “incredibly strong and powerful and very, very atrocious”. Pasolini, who greatly influenced both aforementioned directors, also stated that Bellocchio “represents a cultural alternative to the ten years that preceded us” and compared his cinematic language to a prose with elements of poetry.

Giulia and Alessandro. A frame from the film Fists in the Pocket.

Fists in the Pocket is full of irony, diseases of the body and of the mind, sexual tensions, seizure attacks and intense inner anger with Alessandro at its centre. His behaviour can be best compared to the one of a caged animal and arises not just from almost tangible disconnection from the surrounding world, but from a mad desperation to transcend his forced provincialism and family. While the oldest brother Augusto embodies the dream of an independent life, free from outdated values, Alessandro has the nihilistic impulse to destroy traditional ethics. The first is a dreamer, while the second is a practitioner who will do everything to pursue his dream, realizing that he himself as a revolutionary has no future. In his attempts to free his brother from the burdens of their family, he goes to the extreme lengths, and Bellocchio shoots these scenes in the most generalized and detached form, trying to deprive them of specifics and shock effect in order to portray just a metaphor for rebellion.

Shot just a couple of years before the outbreak of civil and students’ unrest in May 1968, Fists in the Pocket can be in a way considered prophetical as a preface to these events. Not only it questions the generally accepted concept of norm, but also shows that rebellious aspirations hidden from others ultimately cannot but adversely affect the emotional state of a young individual. From here, it’s just a step to the director’s brilliant guess about the deep connection between the craving for a rapid, compromise-free breakdown of life and a progressive mental disorder. In this, the director saw and predicted the drama of a whole generation, which can inspire viewer’s reflection and provide insights even in our modern days.

Cover image: A frame from the film I pugni in tasca.

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