Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (1965) remains one of the most impressive debuts in Italian cinema, and Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, notte) is, if anything, even more remarkable—further evidence (following proof after proof after proof) that Bellocchio is what he indeed seemed to be nearly forty years ago: after Antonioni and Rossellini, Italy’s greatest film artist.
In 1978, one of the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) in Italy kidnapped and (depending on your point of view) executed or assassinated Italy’s presumed next president, former law professor Aldo Moro, 61, president of the ruling party, the Christian Democrats, which was working on striking a compromise with the Italian Communist Party, thus ensuring that the most idealistic and dedicated among the nation’s Communists, whom the Red Brigade “terrorists” exemplified, would be neutered, that is, enormously diminished in their capacity to influence the government either directly or indirectly. Nevertheless, what most concerned the extremists was the bourgeois appropriation of the Left that accommodation between Christian Democrats and Communists represented, shifting the ground beneath the class struggle that should be the focus of political consciousness and national attention. The Red Brigade, then, was both politically and ideologically driven. Theirs was a mission, fueled by historical imperatives, aimed at keeping alive a vibrant Marxist dream of social and economic justice.
The plan was also an ill-conceived, deluded and violent event that required killing five bodyguards before Moro himself was snatched. The abductors announced that Moro would be tried by them. Parliament replaced Moro with Giulio Andreotti, whose coalition government, including Communists for the first time in Italy’s history, orchestrated a virulent crackdown on terrorism. I can’t believe that the kidnappers actually imagined, as the film suggests, that what they did and what ensued would generate public support for them, but, if they did believe this, their actions backfired. Italy’s political sensibilities were rocked; the Italian people were rocked to their souls. Like the assassination of President Kennedy in the U.S., Moro’s death, many details of which were officially suppressed, invited a national psychosis of self-generating conspiracy theories.
Bellocchio, directing from his own brilliant script, has created a fiction that parallels rather than attempts to reproduce the original event. He has not made an objective film—one, that is, that attempts to see the kidnapping and holding of Moro from an “outside” view that is either official or neutral. The protagonist of his film isn’t Moro; it’s Chiara, who, at 23, is the only female member of this cell of the Red Brigades. Keyed to her participation and observations, the film is shown from the “inside,” from Chiara’s point of view, taking us into a scene that we might not otherwise be able to imagine. Chiara’s turns out to be a changing viewpoint, however, as she takes in the television news coverage, and alternates between her workaday life as a university librarian and her hidden life, as a revolutionary, in the apartment in one buried room of which Moro is being held prisoner. Chiara comes to oppose the execution or assassination of Aldo Moro.
Or, at least, we think she does; for, during his film’s second half, Bellocchio seamlessly interweaves actual action and surrealism that is keyed to the dreams and, perhaps, only the thoughts of the characters, including—especially—Chiara. The first half of the film is riveting and absorbing; in it, the Red Brigade members rent and set up the apartment, commit (offscreen) the kidnapping, and establish their relationships with Moro, whom they confront with their intentions and motives. However, it’s the film’s second part, wherein the apartment-mates clash with themselves and one another, in which Bellocchio’s filmmaking in particular shines. Moreover, intermittently this filmmaking is surprising and riotously funny, especially as the Pope and Moro’s fellow politicians seek public ways to appropriate Moro’s misfortune for their own benefit. With great satirical clarity, Bellocchio reveals how ordinary citizenry became imaginative extensions of the kidnapped and murdered Moro while officialdom instead became extensions of the kidnappers! Indeed, Bellocchio suggests that the state more or less pursued Moro’s end by thwarting any possible exchange of Moro for imprisoned Leftists. Ultimately, Moro’s family opts not to participate in the media event that the public funeral for Moro becomes, retaining his body for their own, very private ceremony. Meanwhile, we see Moro in the flesh, jauntily walking, safe and sound, down city streets—by dint of whose wish fulfillment, we can never be sure. Chiara’s? Other Red Brigade members as well? The Italian people’s? His own? All these?
Bellocchio uses snippets of black-and-white films to convey the dreams of his Red Brigade members. (Otherwise, the film is in color.) Lenin’s snow-clad bench, where Lenin famously would sit and read or meditate, appears from Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin (1934); the shooting to death of partisans, from a boat into the sea, appears from Rossellini’s Paisà (1946). In one instance, one of the Red Brigade members goes to sleep and has a film-dream from which one of his cohorts wakes up. Luis Buñuel showed someone waking up from someone else’s dream in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1971); but in that film the point is that members of the bourgeoisie cannot even lay claim to their own dreams. Bellocchio’s point lies elsewhere; he is showing us the tight community of these dedicated revolutionaries before this community unravels. Part of the unraveling is due to Chiara’s recollection of Rossellini’s film, which, in consort with other elements in her life, leads her to identify herself and her cohorts not with the partisans but with the Fascists. The news reports, a university student at the library where she works who is attracted to her, her own conscience: all these conspire to shift her “inside” view of the act that her group has committed (and the worse one that the group will commit) to an “outside” view, causing her ideological certainty to wobble. The ends may not justify the means.
The distanced, disciplined, highly imaginative way Bellocchio approaches and develops his material compels us to join Chiara in finding political violence inhumane as well as counterproductive—if, indeed, her own view shifts that far.
The title of the film is that of a play written by the boy from the library who challenges the inhumanity of Chiara’s radicalism without himself knowing that she is one of the persons responsible for the crime that is holding hostage the minds and hearts of the Italian nation. In turn, the budding playwright has drawn this title from a poem by Emily Dickinson that begins “Good Morning — Midnight — / I’m coming Home — / Day — got tired of Me — / How could I — of Him?” The entire poem is relevant, but these lines encapsulate the poignancy of Chiara’s predicament as she struggles to negotiate the shifting ground of her convictions. What a reminder, too, of the genius of America’s greatest poet.
With two exceptions, the acting is perfectly adequate. The two exceptions, in the two roles that really require this, are superb. Maya Sansa is perceptive and emotionally thrilling as Chiara. Bellocchio’s tight closeups, which capture each flicker of emotion despite Chiara’s suppression of feelings in order to steel herself to her revolutionary task, facilitate a rich, powerful, subtly inflected performance. Almost as wonderful is Roberto Herlitzka as Moro, whose stream of letter-writing to solicit outside support shifts from methodical to pathetic to hilarious. Funny, also, is how for a while Moro seems to dominate the captors, provoking from Chiara this outburst at one point: “He’s holding us prisoners.” Herlitzka drives his captors crazy by seeming so resigned and passive (I am reminded of Takashi Shimura’s Kanji Watanabe in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Ikiru), not to mention bewildered since he is convinced he is the epitome of a just and socially committed leader.
Good Morning, Night placed second at Venice and won for Bellocchio the International Critics’ Prize at the European Film Awards. It’s a film that hasn’t a single ingratiating, manipulative moment in it. Rather, it offers the sheer pleasure of humane feeling and intellectual rigor.
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