The Bad and the Beautiful

in 37th Toronto International Film Festival

by Louis-Paul Rioux

It’s sad to say, but with Dormant Beauty (Bella Addormentata), Marco Bellocchio has made a bad movie out of great material: the controversial issue of euthanasia. Melodramatic, confusing, and overlong, this multinarrative hodgepdge misses the point more than once. Bellocchio and his co-scripters have contrived  three interlocking stories more or less related to the real case of Eluana Englaro, a young woman reduced to a vegetative state following a car accident. When the movie begins, the Italian parliament is about to pass a law prohibiting euthanasia, polarizing the country into two camps: pro-life and pro-choice. Eluana’s father was of the latter persuasion, and fought in court for the right to remove her feeding tube. In one of the film’s storylines, a senator who experienced a situation similar to that of Eluana’s father  plans to vote against the government’s anti-euthanasia position, alienating  his  religious and uncompromisingly pro-life daughter. Complicating this conflict, the daughter falls in love with a handsome pro-choice young man. This story is well written, moving, and played with intensity and sincerity by Toni Servillo (Il Divo) and Alba Rohrwacher (I Am Love).

The same can’t be said for the two other stories. The one about a dedicated doctor trying to save a young, rebellious drug addict (Maya Sansa, in a thankless role) who attempted suicide grows tedious; it’s filled with gratuitous  details and repetitive effects. But it looks good compared  to the other segment, in which an over-the-top Isabelle Huppert plays a famous, ultra-Catholic actress who abandoned her brilliant career in order to take care of her comatose teenaged daughter, angering her son, a wannabe comedian, who disapproves. Operatic  to the point of being ridiculous, thispart of the movie drags painfully, testing the patience of the audience. Add to the mix a heavy-handed satire of the corrupt government of Silvio Berlusconi, comparing it to ancient Rome, and you have a good example of an over-ambitious film that fails to shed light on a crucial issue. A missed opportunity for the talented director of Fists in the Pocket and Vincere.

On the other hand, Stéphane Brizé has made a precise, restrained, non-judgmental, and overwhelming movie on the same topic. It is also far more authentic and accurate than the Bellocchio picture. The gifted auteur of Mademoiselle Chambon, along with his collaborator, co-screenwriter Florence Vignon, chose to focus A Few Hours of Spring (Quelques heures de printemps) on the difficult relationship between an ex-convict (Vincent Lindon, solid as always) and his mother (Hélène Vincent, better than ever), who is suffering from cancer. Forced to live in the family house after his release from prison, the grumpy truck driver quickly  becomes fed up with the daily routines of the ailing old widow. Violent arguments ensue, followed by touching and subtle reconciliations. Just in time for the heart-wrenching denouement, when the old woman goes with her son to a Swiss clinic for her last journey, since assisted suicide is illegal in France. Didactic in a good way, these scenes depict with clarity the procedures and consequences of this option, a thing that Bellocchio fails to do. Brizé demonstrates that small is beautiful, that sometimes there’s no need to overdo a subject that is simple and profoundly human.

Edited by Peter Keough