Marco Bellocchio is one of the great filmmakers of Italian cinema, and, still working at 74, he may be the greatest of those living. But his movies, when they're released in the States at all, come and go like zephyrs. Even filmgoers who take all kinds of cinema seriously had to work to seek out Vincere, Bellocchio's stark 2009 drama about Mussolini and his secret first wife, Ida Dalser (featuring a blazing lead performance by Giovanna Mezzogiorno), or his 2003 thriller Good Morning, Night, about a Red Brigade revolutionary who suffers a crisis of conscience over her involvement in the kidnapping of Aldo Moro. And now, at last, Bellocchio's persuasive, delicately textured 2012 Dormant Beauty is getting a U.S. release. Don't let this one slip through your fingers.
Toni Servillo (also the star of the similarly, and confusingly, named 2013 Oscar winner The Great Beauty) plays Uliano Beffardi, a Berlusconi-era senator facing a crucial vote in parliament: Should the government allow the plug to be pulled on a woman, Eluana Englaro, who's been lying in a coma for 17 years? Or should it uphold its resistance to euthanasia, obviously a stance that curries favor with the all-powerful Catholic Church? Eluana's case has attracted zealots on both sides: Beffardi's daughter, Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), believes Eluana should be kept alive without question. Beffardi leans in the opposite direction, and tensions between father and daughter ignite. Their convictions have been shaped by a shared traumatic experience that each reads differently. Now, politics that have become intensely personal are tearing them apart.
Bellocchio weaves other stories around this thorny father-daughter conflict: Isabelle Huppert plays a religious-nut actress who has sidelined her career to while her life away at the bedside of her own daughter, a sleeping — that is, dormant — beauty who's being kept alive by a breathing machine. And a dark-eyed methadone addict (Maya Sansa), seemingly driven to madness by her own jangled nerves, tries to take her own life, only to be saved by a doctor (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, the director's son); he takes action out of duty, though he also senses something in her that's desperately worth saving.
Because Bellocchio tends to riff on actual events — the real-life case of Eluana Englaro was extremely divisive in Italy — it might help, going into his movies, to know something about Italian politics and 20th-century history. But it's hardly necessary. Bellocchio doesn't make movies about ideologies; he makes movies about people. His ideas are spelled out in distinctive visual language: in the steamy camaraderie of a bathhouse where politicians gather, surprisingly naked in all ways; in the way Servillo's Beffardi, knowing that voting with his heart threatens not just his political stature but his relationship with his daughter, frowns in consternation at the sad mess that the world has become — his skin has been creased and battered by years of conscientious worry, which, for anyone with a conscience, would seem to be a given in Italian politics.
Subtle emotional intelligence has always distinguished Bellocchio's filmmaking, and Dormant Beauty is constructed from fine-grained layers of it, the filmmaker's equivalent of a master cabinetmaker's craft. Bellocchio's characters speak in glances more than slogans, telling us about the infinite number of ways in which we cling to life, whether our own or someone else's.