Kidnapped (12A) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Marco Bellocchio, Italy-Germany-France, 2023, 135 mins, subtitles

Cast: Enea Sala, Leonardo Maltese, Fausto Russo Alesi, Barbara Ronchi, Paolo Pierobon, Fabrizio Gifuni

Review by Colin Dibben

This nuanced and engaging historical drama pits a Jewish family against the power of the Pope in 19th century Italy. The film teeters on the verge of the operatic at times but thankfully never succumbs.

In 1858, in the Jewish quarter of Bologna, the Pope’s soldiers burst into the home of Salomone and Marianna Mortara (Alesi, Ronchi) to take Edgardo, their seven-year-old son. The authorities are acting on evidence that Edgardo (played as a child by Enea Sala and by Leonardo Maltese as a young man) has been secretly baptised as Christian – and the law states that he must therefore be brought up as a Catholic.

As Edgardo adjusts to life in a strict seminary school, his loving parents mobilise their community to get their son back. The Mortaras’ struggle quickly takes on a political dimension, which in turn makes it impossible for Pope Pio IX (Pierobon) to agree to return Edgardo.

Marco Bellocchio is arguably Italy’s greatest living film maker, with a long and illustrious career stretching back to 1965’s intense family drama Fists in the Pocket. He makes films that explore concepts of political emancipation and radical change in terms of the instruments and processes of state power. Individuals may stand out and kick back, but they are swept along in the indifferent flows of the wide course of history.

Kidnapped is a good example. On the surface, it is the tale of a plucky family attempting to stick it to the Pope after he abuses his power. This is probably how Spielberg would have made the film – he was in pre-production on a film of the story before the pandemic – and it is certainly one aspect of Bellocchio’s film too. The hook, if you will.

But Bellocchio zooms both in and out, looking at the inner picture and the bigger picture too: how tormented Edgardo seeks to conciliate between his two ‘families’ within himself; and how the movement to free him takes on a political dimension during the 1870s’ civil war for Italian independence.

The state-of-the-nation drama plays out in a suspiciously easy-to-watch fashion; but maybe Bellocchio and his creative team are just very good at their stuff. There are some lovely bits: Edgardo fantasises about reconciling Christianity and Judaism (and thereby healing his own life) by drawing the nails out of the seminary chapel’s crucified Christ icon; abrupt cuts between Papal State Catholic rituals and intimate Jewish family rituals emphasise both similarities and differences.

The villains of the piece are perhaps a little too evil-eyed and sweaty, especially Pierobon and Gifuni, who plays the local priest who initiates the kidnapping and is then taken to court by the Mortaras. But there is also some pretty wide-eyed and sweaty acting from Alesi and Ronchi as Edgardo’s parents. Understandably, perhaps.

The score is the real villain here: it is way too intrusive and emotional and moves the audience towards a sentimental perception of proceedings that isn’t really borne out by the script, the directing or the editing.

Bellocchio always plays a tight game, his tales braking harshly short of the over-dramatic, in a move that is often quite visible onscreen. Edgardo, as both child and young man, embodies an ambivalence that characterises the film itself and many of Bellocchio’s other great films too.

Kidnapped is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 26 April 2024.