“Rapito is classical filmmaking, and Bellocchio doesn’t have to prove anything anymore in that regard. But a little added spark and (melo)drama would have certainly helped the film to be more compelling than it is.”
First, a history lesson. In 1857, Bologna’s inquisitor Father Pier Feletti learned that six years before a woman by the name of Anna Morisi had baptised Edgardo Mortara, a child of a Jewish family she worked for, because she wanted to save his soul before he died of a fever. The infant actually lived, for his illness wasn’t that grave, but because of the baptism the Catholic Church held the conviction that the boy was a Christian and abducted Edgardo from his home to send him to the Vatican. The Mortara family and the Jewish community at large was obviously outraged over this, and the case became famous across Europe and even in the United States. Edgardo was raised a Catholic under the protection of Pope Pius IX, who categorically refused to send the boy back to his family. Edgardo eventually became a priest, but the outrage over his case was one of the contributing factors to the downfall of the Pontifical State as Italy became a unified state.
Almost a decade ago the story of Edgardo Mortara, the subject of Italian master Marco Bellocchio’s latest film Rapito (Kidnapped), was slated to be told by none other that Steven Spielberg. It is easy to see what drew a sentimentalist like Spielberg, with his Jewish heritage and his interest in theology in some of his more adult-driven fare like Schindler’s List and Munich, to the story of this young Jewish boy and the effect of religious indoctrination on an impressionable child. Add to that a boy taken away from his family, a recurring theme in Spielberg’s films, and it sounded like a match made in whatever religion’s version of heaven. Alas, it wasn’t to be: the focus of the Tony Kushner-penned script lay on the boy’s story (more so than in Bellocchio’s version, but more about that later), but Spielberg couldn’t find a six-year-old who could convincingly portray Edgardo. Eventually, the project fell apart.
Fast forward to May 2023 and Marco Bellocchio unveiling Rapito, his take on the story, in Competition in Cannes. The focus has shifted: Bellocchio is clearly more interested in the historical context and importance of Edgardo Mortara’s case. The emotional aspect of the story is better balanced than it probably would have been in Spielberg’s version, with more time devoted to Edgardo’s parents and their desperate attempts to get their son back. The father, Momolo (Fausto Russo Alesi), takes a cautious approach, while Edgardo’s mother, Marianna (Barbara Ronchi), is prepared to burn the world down to hold Edgardo in her arms again. The emotional side of the story never takes off though, in part because of Momolo’s caution, and in part because the child actor portraying young Edgardo (Leonardo Maltese) isn’t up to the task; it is easy to see why Spielberg had so much trouble casting the part.
Bellocchio’s main interest lies in the rendering of historical facts though, which makes Rapito a rather dry summation of the case. Gorgeous to look at, for sure, as Francesco Di Giacomo’s cinematography, in particular his interior work, and the production design by Andrea Castorina are sumptuous, but the film is bereft of any true emotion because it is going through the historical moments. Only Ronchi’s feisty mother gives the film some fire, and Paolo Pierobon delivers a fine supporting performance as Pius IX, more or less the antagonist of the story. Rapito is classical filmmaking, and Bellocchio doesn’t have to prove anything anymore in that regard. But a little added spark and (melo)drama would have certainly helped the film to be more compelling than it is.