THE STORY – In 1958, the six-year-old Edgardo Mortara is seized from his home by the Pope’s soldiers upon suspicion that he had been baptized and, therefore, must receive a Catholic education far from his Jewish family.
THE CAST – Enea Sala, Leonardo Maltese, Paolo Pierobon, Fausto Russo Alesi & Barbara Fonchi
THE TEAM – Marco Bellocchio (Director/Writer) & Susanna Nicchiarelli (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 125 Minutes
Italian director Marco Bellocchio returned to Cannes this year in official competition with his latest film “Kidnapped” (or “Rapito” in Italian), a historical drama based on a true story that many North American audiences might remember Steven Spielberg and Oscar Isaac had tried to get made a few years ago. Sticking with his Italian roots and continuing to explore key moments in Italian history, the 83-year-old director has consistently brought sincerity to his storytelling, and “Kidnapped” is no different as it blends history, religion, and human drama to tell a compelling story.
Partially based on a real story, the film begins in 1858 in Bologna when the police barge into the Mortara family’s house to take their six-year-old son, Edgardo (Enea Sala). Edgardo is kidnapped on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church because, according to recent testimony, he was secretly baptized as a child. Therefore, according to the Papal law, he must now receive a Catholic education, far from his Jewish family. Throughout the film, Edgardo’s parents, Salmone (Fausto Russo Alesi) and Marianna (Barbara Ronchi) Mortara, keep fighting to see him again as the family story becomes intertwined with a growing dislike and criticism towards the Church and Pope Pius IX (Paolo Pierobon). As the temporal power of the Church starts weakening and the unification of Italy begins, the Mortara family embarks on a legal journey to have their son back while Edgardo as a young adult (Leonardo Maltese), becomes more and more attached to the Catholic religion and the Pope himself as he remains separated from his family well into adulthood.
The historical setting is key to embracing what “Kidnapped” is attempting to accomplish. Set in one of the most significant historical times for the future Kingdom of Italy, the film cleverly works the Mortara family’s personal tragedy into a much wider context of uncertainty for the Papal State. Spanning over perhaps the most important twenty years in Italian history, Marco Bellocchio adds a layer to the story that is not just a family drama but spreads much further to include the very foundation of the country and its relationship with the Church. With handsomely mounted costumes and production design, the sweeping historical dimension shows the bigger picture and is a clever way of heightening the film’s stakes.
The future of Edgardo Mortara and that of the Italian state are interlaced: as stated in one of the most striking moments of the film, “We will free him [Edgardo] when we free Rome.” Just like the country can only be united when free from the Pope’s influence, Edgardo can only be free if removed from the Church as an institution. But is this really possible for someone who was forced to leave everything behind and only has had the Catholic religion, and the Pope, in his life for twenty years? The bitter ending of “Kidnapped” would suggest that the answer is no. Edgardo can never return to his family, not when he has known nothing but the Catholic Church. And perhaps that is the biggest injustice of the film and Edgardo’s story.
As the film progresses, it also becomes explicit that while the central conflict may seemingly be between the Mortara family and the Pope, the underlying one is between the Church and the newly established Italian state. Visually, this is made clear by a powerful juxtaposition between the trial against Cardinal Gaetano Feletti (Fabrizio Gifuni) and Edgardo’s Communion. Similarly, as the story approaches the year 1860 and the kingdom of Italy is born and revolts against the Papal state, the religious symbols in the movie give way to Italian flags. Significantly, the crosses and religious statues are less present after the statue of Pius IX gets destroyed in Bologna, and Edgardo sees Jesus’ statue walk away from the church in a dream-like sequence.
Another key juxtaposition is that between the two religions portrayed in the film, as Bellocchio cuts together moments where Edgardo learns the Catholic religious rites with the family prayer of the Mortara family. Similarly, symbols of both religions are highly prevalent throughout the film, particularly in the first half. This contrast suggests religion’s key role in people’s lives, as religious rituals have a cultural element rooted in family traditions rather than simply based on personal beliefs. In fact, Edgardo’s distance from his family is not merely geographical, but it quickly becomes cultural as well as he is driven away from the principles that held his family together.
Therefore, it is evident how “Kidnapped” is deeply tied to Italian culture and history. This is transparent throughout the movie as Edgardo’s journey takes him through different cities in central Italy. Interestingly, what the audience, as well as Edgardo, sees the most from 1860s Italy are the churches to connect us to the film’s overarching theme. The most notable cities are Bologna and Rome, both of which are identifiable through the landmarks that Bellocchio showcases to position the audience geographically and historically. The different regions and cities are also depicted through the characters’ different accents, depending on where a scene is set.
Interestingly, “Kidnapped” does not assign moral judgment to its character. Even the less likable ones, like the grown-up Edgardo or Padre Felletti, are still somewhat understandable when looking at their circumstances. What the film speaks out against is the Church as an institution and its significant temporal power, thus criticizing the excess of religious fanatism that drives Edgardo away from his family and his cultural upbringing. And yet we cannot blame Edgardo, who never really had a choice in the matter, for it but instead the Church as an institution. Therefore, the only real villain of the movie is the character that embodies the Church: Pope Pious IX, who makes for a very compelling and eerie villain. While some performances are not always convincing, Paolo Pierobon is outstanding in his portrayal of Pope Pius IX.
What makes “Kidnapped” such a compelling and urgent film is that it sparks a reflection on the power that the Church as an institution can still hold today. While some parts of the movie may seem confusing because it deals with so many themes, it embraces and thrives in its occasional chaos, thus creating a product the audience will reflect on for long after the film has ended. With its striking cinematography, Bellocchio delivers a powerful and timely commentary on the influence of the Church on politics and governmental institutions, one that is still hauntingly accurate today.