From his dazzling first feature “Fists in the Pocket” in 1965, Marco Bellocchio has used the emotions springing from conflict within his own large family as a creative spur, and in some of the films he made subsequently (like “The Eyes, the Mouth” in the early 80s and “My Mother’s Smile” at the beginning of the 21st century), he movingly returned to dramatizing his own familial issues.
And now in his documentary “Marx Can Wait,” which gathers together the remaining members of the sizable Bellocchio family for what might be a last reunion, Bellocchio reveals — with an intensifying, near-frenzied focus that is a hallmark of his work — the trauma that has haunted him for most of his life: the suicide of his twin brother Camillo at age 29 in 1968.
Bellocchio has dealt with the death of Camillo before in his films: In “The Eyes, the Mouth,” the Camillo character is called Pippo, and Bellocchio imagined a redemption for the character of Pippo’s brother that involved him taking up with a woman that Pippo had left behind. Bellocchio sees “The Eyes, the Mouth” now as a way of protecting and appeasing his mother, who was still alive when it was made; it is only in “Marx Can Wait” that he confronts the truth of what happened with his brother and with their family as a whole.
“Marx Can Wait” gets off to a slightly slow start as we see the Bellocchios at their reunion meal, and partly this is because there are so many of them, and it takes some time to get our bearings on who they are. Bellocchio weaves in some documentary footage of Mussolini and some scenes from his own movies as markers for moments from the early life of his family. But it is Camillo who is presented as the star of “Marx Can Wait”; Bellocchio uses a lot of film footage of his handsome lost brother, who stares in a hooded way at the camera as his now-elderly siblings discuss his life and his fun-loving but melancholy character on the soundtrack.
“Fists in the Pocket” remains one of the major films of its period because of its still-startling sense of an oppressive bourgeois home atmosphere getting slashed and burned by unconscious, forbidden emotional impulses; there is a hysterical and grotesque and almost-humorous feeling in that picture of repression and excessive propriety giving way to the maddest of destructive and self-destructive gestures to relieve all that pressure.
In “Marx Can Wait,” we hear about similar clashes in Bellocchio’s own family life, and somehow just hearing about these fights has an even greater force of release than all the scenes in his fictionalized treatments of his family. When we hear about his father’s death and how his mother immediately falsified it in her obsessive need to follow the rules of her religion, it has the same overheated and close-to-comic tone as scenes from Bellocchio’s narrative features, yet here it also has the enormous relief of elderly people speaking up and holding nothing back. There is a sense that they are all thinking, “Mama is gone, so now we can finally try to get somewhere near the truth.”
Camillo was envious of his brother’s success as a filmmaker, and Bellocchio is clearly riven by guilt that he might not have responded to a letter Camillo wrote him in the mid-1960s asking for career advice. In a family as large as the Bellocchio clan, there are always going to be children who get neglected due to the more obvious and serious claims from certain siblings. (One of Bellocchio’s sisters is hearing-impaired, and his brother Paolo suffered from some unspecified mental condition that made him prone to regular and very upsetting verbal outbursts.)
The climax of “Marx Can Wait,” which is what a despairing Camillo told his then–politically radical brother Marco, comes in the harrowing description of Camillo’s suicide by hanging and his mother’s discovery of his body. A relative who was there says that after the Bellocchio matriarch found Camillo’s corpse, she tore the dress off of her own body and kept yelling, “I’m not going to die!” Hearing this scene related in detail is just as disturbing as any scene from a Bellocchio narrative feature, and in some ways it is more disturbing because the mask of creative distance has been so totally dropped.
“Marx Can Wait” is a crucial and profound addition to the filmography of one of the greatest living filmmakers, and it ends with a loving reconciliation with the past that is so moving and so convincing because it is so hard-won; this is a movie that has a rare kind of final cathartic authority.
“Marx Can Wait” opens in NYC July 15.