Fists in the Pocket
Dir. Marco Bellocchio, Italy, 1965

by Nick Pinkerton

“A gleaming ice pick in the eye of bourgeois family values and Catholic morality,” promises the purple prose of Criterion’s sleeve blurb on their DVD of Fists in the Pocket, the banner re-emergence of Marco Bellocchio’s under-discussed directorial debut, a film of potent blasphemy. Those specificities, bourgeois family and Catholic morality, are case appropriate to the movie’s provincial mid-Sixties Italian milieu, though it should be said in fairness that there’s no system of values or morality that the movie doesn’t affront.

Shot at the filmmaker’s mother’s villa in the Northern Italian village of Bobbio, the film observes a once-prosperous rural family sunken into dissipation—the matriarch (Liliana Gerace) is blind and mostly vacant; the two younger sons, Alessandro and Leone (Lou Castel and Pierluigi Troglio), suffer from varying degrees of apoplexy; and the daughter, Giulia (Paola Pitagora, a mink-sleek beauty with a great gap-toothed smile), is a compulsive narcissist seething in sex. The family’s breadwinner, oldest brother Augusto (Marino Masé), stands in sharp contrast; he’s upright and aristocratically handsome, the only one fit to travel in outside society… and his haughty bearing makes him the least sympathetic of the brood—he’s introduced berating his girlfriend about her driving, his lofty jaw emanating cruelty.

Their heirloom-choked villa is a hothouse of resentment amidst the fragile loveliness of winter’s damp flurries—hence the title’s evocation of smothered rage. Aspirant bourgeois Augusto fears to bring his prim fiancée to the house, and ignores his siblings when they’re at the same café where he’s sitting with friends. As for the rest, who seemingly only leave the family seat to visit dad at the cemetery on All Saint’s Day, their stunted lives are all tangled together like bonzai branches. Giulia tries to undermine Augusto’s love life with anonymous letters, while Alessandro (his family call him by the diminutives Ale or Sandro) idly lusts for his sister in peeping and poetry, angrily feints slaps inches from his mother’s sightless eyes, and sleeps with the same prostitute that his brother frequents to needle her with questions about Augusto.

Alessandro takes it upon himself—initially with the excuse of liberating his big brother of filial responsibility, though that motive gradually recedes—to prune away dead limbs from his warped family tree as remorselessly as he stomps a picture of a dead uncle out of its frame (actress Pitagora, in a lavishly produced featurette that accompanies the disc, remembers that the movie’s original title as The Family Gene). In the film’s running time, he’ll coolly commit matricide and fratricide, but standard suspense formulas don’t apply. The victims are passive targets (shades of Chabrol’s Merci pour le chocolat), and the only character positioned for traditional movie heroism, Augusto, seems an accomplice to his brother’s crimes, silently accepting the string of deaths in the family which crop up suspiciously soon after Sandro baldly announces his plans to “unburden” his brother.

The movie plays a bit like Rebel Without a Cause filtered through J.K. Huysmans—the degenerated gentry are staples of Decadent literature, but the lead role, the overgrown delinquent played by then unknown Swedish actor Castel, evokes the self-absorbed languor of the Jimmie Dean lost boy. American Method Acting is implicitly cited—Giulia keeps a postcard of Brando in The Wild One taped to her headboard, and an accompanying essay by Deborah Young states that Giulia’s role was created with Susan Strasberg in mind—but a deep danger is unveiled in the isolated inversion of that fussy, tic-riddled kind of performance. If the movie doesn’t endorse Ale’s transgressions, it still finds him the most fascinating of the family (Bellocchio plays up the film’s element of surrealist biography), never lacking the curiosity to dolly toward the ambiguities of his screwed-up face after a murder, or at a dance club where he fails to mix while sleek youths blankly cha-cha-cha to a monotonous bossa nova.

As a physical specimen, Castel’s ideally cast—there’s something ever so slightly off about the way he’s put together; are his arms too small for his trunk? Is it that distended, pulsing forehead that gives him the quality of an overgrown infant (his fits seem closer to temper tantrums)? From big brother Augusto, the splendidly apportioned portrait of an entitled country gentleman, to Sandro, down to Leone, the stunted, semi-retarded baby of the family, you can tactilely trace the corruption of a bloodline.

When we first encounter Alessandro, he drops onscreen, thudding at the base of a barren tree trunk like some fruit improbably borne in the winter landscape. It’s a nicely poetic, playfully mythological introduction, and it’s an early indicator of the way in which Alberto Marrama’s cinematography (“black-and-white”—though, really, the film is gray) will form-fit the contours of this very physical performance by Castel, among others. Entire scenes are built out of isolated, choreographed gestures, as at the first family dinner: Augusto peeling the cat off the table, Ale leaning back his chair to play footsie with his sister (the cutting is almost Bressonian), Leone lapping a saucer of espresso, Giulia admiring her reflection in the glass of some long-dead ancestor’s portrait. Gesture is all there is in this idle, listless house; it can even kill: both of Ale’s murders are performed with a single push of the finger.

Sandro shows a hyperactive kid’s delight in movement for the sake of movement, in getting lost in the reverie of some freshly-discovered contortion: he slithers across the dining room table to grab a newspaper, mimes at impaling himself on a bayonet before shooting back to life in a headstand, pops into a calisthenics pose at the side of his mother’s coffin. He vacillates between manic jags of energy and depressive troughs: one day he’s excited enough at the prospect of breeding chinchillas to use the prospect of freed-up seed money as a motive for murder, but after the killing’s done, the project peters away. It’s a messy performance, skittering off in every direction at once; Alessandro, tossed by impulse, doesn’t know his own motives, and Castel is so brimming with strange invention—I love the moment where he rehearses a macho, decisive hand gestures behind his big brother’s back before working it into conversation—that it’s easy to overlook his bust of a final freak-out, where he winds up doing the Curly Shuffle.

Pauline Kael, an admirer with reservations, quantified this as “a movie about a family cage of beasts”—and that’s about right, so far is the behavior in this movie from what we’ve all agreed to call “humane.” But the film shows real empathy towards its characters (not just the pity one has for suffering beasts) that’s practically in inverse proportion to their capacity for socialization; its motto might almost come from Terence—“Nothing that is human is alien to me”—except I suspect that Bellocchio finds arid respectability nearly grounds for inhumanity. In the film’s catalogue of sins, including incest and gentle homicide, nothing seems to be viewed with so much unambiguous contempt as ever-remote Augusto’s attempt to coax his fiancée into sex while he knows it’s perfectly likely that his brother may have driven the family off a cliff. The movie is practically Catholic in this respect: damnation lies in the difference between passion, misdirected as it may be, and cool culpability, between venial and mortal sin.