Marco Bellocchio’s Devil in the Flesh, the one with the blowjob, befits the maker, at 25, of Fists in the Pocket (1965), the most perverse (and stunning) debut in Italian cinema. By comparison with the one in this powerful film, no family since, in either real or reel life, has seemed quite so dysfunctional. In between, Bellocchio mustered brilliant surrealism for a savage attack on Italian patriarchy, in In the Name of the Father (1971), and has, since, raised another firestorm at home, with the intriguing The Conviction (1991), which tries to locate the elusive line where “rape” starts being rape. Here is a marvelous filmmaker finally, unfairly, outdone by an American president. No longer can Bellocchio lay claim to the world’s most celebrated blowjob.
Devil in the Flesh derives from Raymond Radiguet’s novel Le diable au corps, written, in 1921, while in his teens—Radiguet died at twenty of typhoid—and first filmed, famously, by Claude Autant-Lara in 1946. Then, the story was of a love affair between a sixteen-year-old boy and the wife of a soldier at war—in France, scandalous mostly because of the treasonous nature of the sex; the film, shimmeringly poetic, made an international star of Gérard Philipe, who, both handsome and immensely gifted, brought to the screen, really for the first time, a fully dimensioned male adolescent. Men identified; women swooned. It was left to James Dean, in Hollywood, to swamp “the teenager” in self-pity, in Nicholas Ray’s cornball Rebel Without a Cause (1955); but a more mature perspective allowed viewers to recognize here, not an adolescent as he really was, but one the way he wanted to be seen. Dean’s acting is impossible to take seriously anymore; Philipe’s still shines.
Bellocchio’s bewitching film, in updating and relocating the story, has also had to modify it. The script of Diavolo en corpo—by Bellocchio, Enrico Palandri and Ennio De Concini—changes the setting from Great War France to present-day Italy. The woman, Giulia, is now engaged, not married. Her intended, Giacomo, isn’t, literally at least, a soldier; he is a terrorist who, once he is caught, renounces his radicalism and fingers accomplices in the hope of living a free, “normal” life. At Giacomo’s trial, Giulia befriends Andreà, an eighteen-year-old schoolboy who has followed her there. Giulia, shaky to begin with, realizes that a relationship with Andreà might divest her of her sanity. Her attempts to warn him away, though, fail. They become lovers.
The opening passage mesmerizes. Onto a rooftop in the square connecting an apartment building and Andreà’s school a distraught girl ventures. A hot breeze turns her hair into oceanic drifts; her enormous eyes disclose, not just distress, but a life of distress. While the pupils watch silently, a priest appeals to the child not to usurp God’s authority by committing suicide. The child speaks in some other language than Italian; she may not even understand the priest. In any case, the priest is not the one to save her. Rather, the child is rescued by a neighbor whose eyes are a sorrowful match for hers. This is Giulia. Why wouldn’t Andreà fall in love? Bellocchio’s patient, placid gaze alternates between Giulia and her young counterpart, the foreign girl, recording the mysterious communion developing between them, while also interjecting glimpses of Andreà’s appreciation of the revelatory and redemptive act that he is witnessing. For the young woman, the child’s pain holds up a mirror; for the girl, Giulia’s compassionate eyes silently respond to her direct appeal, no matter the language barrier, composing an epiphany. Snapped out of her trance, pleading for help, the girl is now safely rescued. Into Andreà’s adolescently tormented world the possibility of tenderness has been introduced. He is seduced by it.
But from beneath her carefree, beautiful exterior—Maruschka Detmers, from Jean-Luc Godard’s First Name: Carmen (1984), plays the part—Giulia’s own distress has been revealed. Its cause is easy to interpolate. Giulia’s relationship with Giacomo has been conflicted from the start. He is a terrorist; her father was the victim of terrorists—an interior conflict Bellocchio underscores when, on her way to Giacomo’s trial, Giulia stops by her father’s memorial with fresh flowers. And now Giacomo has recanted and “repented,” thus inadvertently mocking his fiancée’s painful reconciliation to his cause, and thereby exacerbating her sense of guilt over betraying her father’s memory. Moreover, Giulia has more to feel guilty about: Giacomo’s political betrayals in pursuit of an ordinary bourgeois life with her. Indeed, Bellocchio provides visual evidence of her troubled soul. In bed with Andreà, watching on television Giacomo rationalize his capitulation, by remote control Giulia tries erasing the image, blankly flipping channels but somehow always returning to the image and words she is fleeing—a correlative to the sense of imprisonment she herself feels, along with her sense of personality decomposition due to self-disgust over Giacomo’s “deal” with authorities. It is to flee all this corrosive guilt, then, that, touched by his innocence, Giulia has sought refuge with Andreà. Their lovemaking, in the very bed intended for her and Giacomo, defies the expedience that Giacomo has intruded into the foundation of their planned life together.
In her relationship with Andreà, Giulia seeks to reconfirm her humanity, that is, her honesty, decency, compassion. But Andreà brings to the relationship a different need; in effect protesting his father, he seeks to confirm his identity—his manhood, if you will. At times this disparity of needs puts the couple emotionally out of sync. Having climbed from street to Giulia’s bedroom terrace by rope, the boy perspires; Giulia wipes him dry and, in bed, covers him with a sheet, which he flings off. As they begin making love, Giulia again places the sheet over him, to keep him from catching cold—a maternal impulse that also shows that Giulia brings to their lovemaking the full range of her personality. Andreà, hilariously, flings off the sheet twice again, leaving both his childish pride and fragile schoolboy’s ego as naked as his back. How to recover? Now assuming force of dominance, he presses down on Giulia’s hands, intent on keeping them away from that humiliating sheet, and pinning her beneath him until she submits to the rhythm of his lead. She wants to make love; he wants to make a point.
Seamlessly interweaving fantasy and reality, Bellocchio had already taken his Leap Into the Void (1980), achieving, at forty, a grace similar to Luis Buñuel’s in his French mode (Belle de Jour, 1967, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1971, The Phantom of Liberty, 1974). Since then he has further refined his surrealism to gain the effect of suddenly appearing and disappearing ripples in a naturalistic pond. In Diavolo, surrealism is mostly insinuated, almost invisible (although, in one instance, Andreà’s father, a psychoanalyst whose sometime patient Giulia is, steamily imagines her rising naked from his therapeutic couch). In one witty scene, for instance, Giulia and Andreà return to her apartment to find that her prospective mother-in-law, aware of Giulia’s affair, has booby-trapped the place with string she has tautly drawn across doorways and hallways, to “rope” Giulia in with her guilt! This extraordinary method, of rendering surrealism nearly invisible by making its agency the commission of a symbolic act by one of the characters themselves, Bellocchio employs like an accomplished virtuoso. Another example: Giulia’s trampling in dance a floor covered with silverware. She is striking with her feet the bourgeois future with Giacomo that she dreads!
The film’s final scene is every bit as remarkable as its first. Seated, Andreà faces questioners during the oral phase of his senior exam. Unbeknownst to him, Giulia slips into the audience behind him. One teacher chides Andreà for discussing Dante—a national cultural “father”—in a passionless monotone. (We are not surprised; this boy, after all, slept soundly while Giulia snipped away at his pubic hair with scissors.) With charm and good humor, Andreà proceeds to deny that he is a Marxist, a pacifist, a this-“ist,” a that-“ist.” It is good to resist being categorized or reduced; but does anything substantial exist in Andreà that could be reduced? We get our answer. Andreà explains, coolly, that he wants only the involvement with Dante necessary to pass the exam. Now reading, translating and interpreting a passage from Antigone, he opines that the conflict between Antigone and Creon demonstrates opposite responsibilities—to individual conscience and to higher authority—that in fact should be held in balance. My God! In a flash everything about Andreà comes together—for us, for Giulia, perhaps for himself. Just as this exam, for him, is a rite of passage, so is his affair with Giulia, who, listening to his test response, finally understands this. But more: underscoring the cruel pain of this revelation is their separateness; she remains facing his back. Wittily though ruefully, the camera keeps both in view, one behind the other, Andreà as unaware of Giulia’s presence as, Bellocchio implies, he is unaware of her existence. Utterly sacrificed to the satisfaction of an adolescent boy’s voracious ego, Giulia—now at last as completely bereft as the girl on the rooftop at the beginning of the film—silently disintegrates into tears. Heartrending.
There is a diavolo in Bellocchio, and this fascinating film, to which there is so much more than what gave it such wide publicity, is very nearly perfect. (I confess; I refrained here from discussing the notorious scene as a protest against this publicity. However, I cracked up when mentioning the “oral” phase of Andreà’s exam.) One of the chief contributors to this near perfection is Giuseppe Lanci’s subtle, intense cinematography, which fully justifies cinema’s color experiment—something very few films have done. (But another is Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1982 Nostalghia, also lensed by Lanci.) While all the acting is apt, three performances shine: Detmers as Giulia, Federico Pitzalis as Andreà, and Anita Laurenzi as Giacomo’s devoted mother—someone’s future mother-in-law from hell. Indeed, Laurenzi is nothing short of brilliant.
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