Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
European cinema isn't just Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini and Renoir. When not bringing out flawless editions of acknowledged masterpieces, Criterion plays the role of Good Cinema Guide to the less-frequented corners of film history. This fairly obscure Italian gem caused quite a stir at festivals in 1965. It's a debut film from Marco Bellocchio, a major talent with a patchy career. Often mentioned in the same breath as Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution, Fists in the Pocket's powerful story of a malignant Italian family challenged a number of cinema taboos.
Highly intelligent but unmotivated Alessandro (Lou Castel) has occasional epileptic episodes. He lives with his dysfunctional family in a mountain villa. Younger brother Leone (Pier Luigi Troglio) is also epileptic but more severely impaired, Mother (Liliana Gerace) is blind and sister Giulia (Paola Pitagora) has adjustment problems of her own. Only elder brother Augusto (Marino Masé) is "normal," and adjusted to his familial responsibility. Giulia writes a crazy letter to Augusto's girlfriend Lucia (Jeannie McNeil) and appears to have incestuous feelings for all of her brothers. But Alessandro is the dangerous one. Suffering from feelings of inadequacy, he convinces Augusto that his epileptic attacks have stopped, all the while plotting a deliriously perverse plan to murder all of the "useless" family members -- including himself -- to set Augusto free to marry. Unfortunately, Alessandro has expressed so many crazy notions lately that nobody takes him seriously.
Although certain neighbors and locals know better, on the outside Alessandro's family seems fairly normal. Older brother Augusto is a responsible family head. He has a steady girlfriend but is putting off his personal future until he can figure out how to provide for everyone. For now, it's all he can do just to keep siblings Alessandro and Giulia from fighting during dinner.
The household is a nasty scene. The central character is Alessandro, a knot of misdirected self-loathing and frustrations. As far as Alessandro is concerned, the family is a psychic disaster. Brother Leone is a congenital idiot and suffers violent epileptic fits; Alessandro still has an occasional seizure of his own but hides that fact from the judgmental Augusto. A poet and a dreamer, Alessandro lies about a lot of other things as well. Sister Giulia shares caretaker duties for brother Leone; the level of intimacy between the three of them is definitely unhealthy, perhaps even incestuous. Augusto tries to be paternal and keep order while his younger brother and sister fight like cats and dogs. Mother sits through all of this, utterly helpless and disconnected. Her only recreation is an occasional visit to the cemetery.
If Allessandro isn't truly deranged, he works very hard to give that impression. He plots a murder-suicide pact using the family car and comes very close to carrying it out. Giulia is no measure of normalcy as she's thrilled by her brother's recklessness on the mountain roads. When Giulia realizes what Alessandro really had in mind, she's furious --- but not surprised.
All of this is played out like a casual horror film. One would think that Edgar Allan Poe might have emerged from a family similar to this one. Alessandro finds no psychic escape. Augusto is too unimaginative to intervene. Completely normal one moment, Alessandro will throw himself into extremes of despair or hilarity for no apparent reason. The others are like mirrors of his misery. We watch him with trepidation, wondering when he'll finally flip his lid and do something really terrible. The scary part is that Alessandro's behavior isn't all that different from anybody suffering bouts of emotional depression.
The movie has few actual sexual situations but is uncomfortably frank with its relationships: Something fundamentally sick is going on. Both brothers visit prostitutes, an "accepted" outrage to common morality. Augusto reads Alessandro's note threatening to drive the whole family off a cliff, and calmly decides that it's just an attempt to upset him. He seduces his girlfriend instead of raising an alarm. Viewers able to rationalize Alessandro's idle threats will be taken aback when he finally starts carrying them out.
The amazing performance of Lou Castel aside, Fists in the Pocket is definitely a director's picture. His story structure is similar to one of those gothic horror films in which a mad relative starts a killing spree over a contested will. But the goal here is not an inheritance. By refusing to fall into any easily defined category, Bellocchio's film invites interpretation. Is this a comment on a decadent, crumbling Italy? Does Alessandro represent a suppressed undercurrent of fascism, or revolution? There is a strong basis to interpret the film on political terms.
The miracle of Fists in the Pocket is that it doesn't look like anybody's first film. In the extras we learn that Marco Bellocchio had to scrape his budget together, a statement difficult to believe of the masterfully directed film on view. Bellocchio is equally adept at dramatic dinner table confrontations and expansive exteriors. His elaborate but joyless party scene captures perfectly Alessandro's feeble self-exile. Fists in the Pocket sketches a psychologically complex situation in only a few strokes. Bellocchio's film is not the most pleasant viewing experience, but we can easily imagine it holding a film festival audience spellbound.
Criterion's DVD of Fists in the Pocket is a stunning enhanced transfer of this carefully filmed B&W feature. The movie is technically polished, especially for a first feature.
Disc producer Curtis Tsui assembles a peerless selection of interviews with key creatives on the movie. Director Bellocchio, editor Silvano Agosti and actors Lou Castel and Paola Pitagora are all still with us. They're eager to talk about the film and its 'shocking' content, as when Castel's Alessandro mocks his mother's body at her funeral. Director (and onetime competitor) Bernardo Bertolucci appears in a separate Afterword to discuss Bellocchio's achievement. Criterion used to call these analytical interviews Introductions, even though they contain terrible spoilers. Renaming them was a good idea.
An original theatrical trailer is a minor work of art in itself. The disc case contains an illustrated booklet with an essay by critic Deborah Young and a printed interview with director Bellocchio.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fists in the Pocket rates:
Supplements: Interview docu with director Belloccchio, Lou Castel, Paola Pitagora, Editor Silvano Agosti, critic Tullio Kezich; Video afterward by Bernardo Bertolucci, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 18, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson