All his life successful painter Ernesto (Sergio Castellitto) has been able to avoid religion. He does not believe in God and he does not understand those who dedicate their lives to Him. But when the Vatican sends one if his top emissaries to inform Ernesto that the Pope is planning to canonize his deceased mother suddenly the prosperous painter is thrown into a sea of controversy.
A fearless depiction of a modern society desperately attempting to outgrow century-old canons L'Ora di Religione a.k.a The Religion Hour (2002) is a film that asks more questions than many religious officials in Italy would have liked. A meticulous dissection of religious hypocrisy, herein analyzed through an atheist and his attempts to draw a clear line between insincere motives and noble intention, Marco Bellocchio's film is indeed one of the more intelligent productions I have seen aiming to address the role of the Church in a secular society.
Marco Bellocchio creates a disturbing portrait of a society where religion is served by people with dubious morality. The behind-the-scenes actions which The Religion Hour focuses on (while the Vatican is desperately looking for Ernesto's endorsement of their plans to canonize his mother) provide an unsettling look at a whole different breed of a community where the principles of Christian faith are nowhere to be found. Through the eyes of Ernesto, a man who believes only in the present, Marco Bellocchio is as edgy with his camera as we remember him from I Pugni in Tasca a.k.a Fists in the Pocket (1965).
The strongest point of The Religion Hour is the perfectly executed drama of understanding and disagreeing with the intentions of a powerful institution such as the Catholic Church. The initial canonization announcement throws everyone around Ernesto in a state of free falling-family, friends, and people who have barely participated in Ernesto's life suddenly assume different roles. As a result Marco Bellocchio reveals a state where the value system the Church supports appears highly compromised. As expected this was precisely the message that prompted the Vatican to counter Marco Bellocchio's work and consequently denounce it.
By all accounts The Religion Hour is a very unusual film. The depth of the work though undisputable is truly surprising as tackling an issue of such complicated nature typically presents plenty of dilemmas for its creators. Fortunately enough legendary director Marco Bellocchio and a spectacular cast (a marvelous performance by Sergio Castellitto) that appears to have embraced the film's provocative message flawlessly have done a terrific job. The heavy symbolism that creeps behind many of the subplots in this film and particularly the updated image of a state where secular and sacred institutions seem dangerously intertwined in a web of questionable interests transform this film into an exquisite adventure. Certainly to be this critical of a religious institution and the manner in which it functions requires plenty of creative audacity.
In 2002 the film won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and was nominated for Palm d'Or (both of them for Marco Baellochio) during the Cannes Film Festival. In 2003 the film won the David di Donatello Award for Best Supporting Actress (Piera Degli Esposti), Best Actor Award (Sergio Castellitto) granted by the European Film Commission, and Silver Ribbon Awards for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Original Story, Best Sound (Murizio Argentieri) granted by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.77:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's this release by New Yorker Films appears to be an exact replica of the initially produced Italian disc. The R1 print therefore (in a familiar fashion) is a direct PAL-NTSC port providing a notable amount of "ghosting". Given how exceptionally well-made the Italian disc is colors, contrast, and detail are by large of passable quality here but sharpness is certainly bellow what I would have liked to see. The actual print is free of any damage (I did not spot any flecks or dust marks) and for those of you viewing the film on a standard tube I would assume that by large you will be able to neglect the fact this disc is indeed a direct PAL-port of the Italian release.
How Does the DVD Sound?
I quickly took a look at my Italian disc and the first thing to report here is that even though New Yorker have used the same PAL master they have not bothered to port over the spectacular Italian DTS track. In fact the only option on the R1 release is a standard Italian 2.0 mix which is not terrible but certainly lacking the depth the DTS track offers (I must note that that there are some excellent music performances in this film and the DTS really does provide substantial depth to the viewing experience). The white English subtitles are optional and in my opinion quite well done.
The extras present on this disc are also part of the Italian DVD (even though the massive commentary provided by Sergio Castellitto and Marco Bellocchio is nowhere to be found) and as far as I am concerned are the strongest point of this R1 disc. What you will find here is a conversation with Marco Bellocchio and Sergio Castrellitto where the two share their thoughts on the film, its message, and how it was perceived by critics and fans. Next, there are two separate interviews: one with Marco Bellocchio (8.00 min) and one with Sergio Castellitto (9.00 min) where the two further elaborate on The Religion Hour and its message as well as a short featurette titled "A Day on the Set" and the original theatrical trailer for the film. Last but not least there is a 6-page booklet provided with this release that has a curious interview with Marco Bellocchio.
Two years ago when the film was first released on DVD in Italy I could not wait to put my hands on it. I truly believe that this is one of the best films Marco Bellocchio has created and I would not hesitate to put it right next to Fists in the Pocket (1965) and Leap Into the Void (1980). Unfortunately the R1 release is once again a direct PAL-port which leaves me anything but impressed. The extras are well-worth a look!! As long as you understand that the R1 release is PAL-converted and there are better options out there: RECOMMENDED.