Thought and feeling are never far apart in the films of Marco Bellocchio. From his precocious beginnings in the 1960s with “Fists in the Pocket” and “China is Near,” Bellocchio, now 74, has explored weighty ideas — about Italian society and politics; about the struggle between faith and secularism; about authority, idealism and sexual desire — with passionate, at times melodramatic, ardor.
His movie “Dormant Beauty” draws on the case of Eluana Englaro, a woman who died in February 2009 after having been in a vegetative state for nearly 17 years. Her father’s decision to remove her feeding tube and allow her to die was supported by the Italian courts and opposed by the Vatican and the prime minister at the time, Silvio Berlusconi.
Englaro’s fate, like Terri Schiavo’s in the United States a few years earlier, became the subject of a furious and divisive national debate.
Bellocchio uses the climactic days of the controversy to perform a kind of CT scan on the Italian republic and some of its citizens. He follows three sets of characters whose struggles mirror the larger drama that is playing out on ubiquitous television screens.
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A senator (Toni Servillo) finds himself caught between his conscience and the demands of party loyalty. His daughter (Alba Rohrwacher) has joined the anti-right-to-die protesters and struck up a romance with a young man from the other side. An actress (Isabelle Huppert) follows the Englaro story as her own daughter lies in a coma. A doctor (Michele Riondino) tries to save an addict (Maya Sansa) who desperately wants to die.
Each section of the narrative circles around the issues raised by the Englaro case. As often happens in multiplotted movies, there are structural problems. The emotional power of specific scenes and situations is lost in a welter of detail.
But if “Dormant Beauty” does not rank among Bellocchio’s best movies, it nonetheless still occasionally shows him at his best. His eye for the latent beauty and evident absurdity of Italian life remains acute, as does his appreciation for vivid performance. His cast, made up of some of today’s finest Italian screen actors (plus the incomparable Huppert), is never dull, even when the story is less than convincing.