In February 2009, Eluana Englaro died in a nursing home in northeastern Italy at age 38, after spending 17 years in a persistent vegetative state following a car accident. By the time of her death, Englaro had become the subject of a national controversy over a family’s right to let one of their own die a natural death. The Englaro case dominated the news in Italy around the same time the Terri Schiavo case was making headlines in the United States, and the two stories shared a lot of similarities, in that both were marked by sincere public protests on both sides of the issue, combined with plenty of politically motivated grandstanding. Just as the U.S. Congress convened on Palm Sunday in 2005 to try and prevent Schiavo’s family from removing her feeding tube—with Senator Bill Frist giving a speech in which he said that Schiavo didn’t look vegetative to him—so the Italian Parliament took votes to try and counter court orders, with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi arguing that Englaro still looked physically healthy enough to breed.
Marco Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty isn’t directly about Englaro, but the movie is about a diverse group of people affected by the waning days of the Englaro story. Toni Servillo plays Uliano Beffardi, a senator being pressured by his party to vote for an anti-euthanasia bill, even though Beffardi has firsthand experience with end-of-life care—having allowed his own suffering wife to die—and he believes these difficult decisions need to be left up to the people involved, not to the government or the church. Alba Rohrwacher plays Beffardi’s daughter Maria, who came away from her mother’s death with a different take, believing all life to be sacred. Michele Riondino plays Roberto, who joins his emotionally disturbed brother on the picket lines opposite Maria’s, but forms a romantic attachment to her while they’re yelling across the street in their respective angry mobs. Isabelle Huppert plays “Divine Mother,” an actress who’s turned her family’s life upside-down while praying constantly for her own comatose daughter. And Maya Sansa is a suicidal junkie named Rossa, who argues matters of life and death with the cynical-but-committed Dr. Pallido (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio).
Bellocchio modifies his approach slightly for each storyline. The Maria/Roberto and Rossa/Pallido scenes resemble soapy melodrama, while the Divine Mother segments play more like an operatic art-film (not unlike Bellocchio’s excellent 2009 historical drama Vincere), and Senator Beffardi’s plot is rendered with deeper shadows and a more propulsive score, akin to a political thriller. Cinematographer Daniele Cipri and composer Carlo Crivelli have a lot to do with distinguishing the different parts of Dormant Beauty, and editor Francesca Calvelli skillfully interweaves the pieces so that it all feels unified—even when the movie veers into the odder world of Divine Mother. Bellocchio also connects the characters through his use of actual television reports from 2009, which play almost incessantly on screens in the characters’ homes and environs.
Still, all the shifts in style and efforts toward visual unity can’t disguise that this is a very talky movie, structured by a series of too-neat debates. Dormant Beauty’s script is clever to a fault. Bellocchio and his co-writers, Veronica Raimo and Stefano Rulli, introduce characters to represent nearly every point of view on the question of who should get to decide whether to take a patient off life-support, and frequently, their conversation reduces to one person presenting the Catholic argument about what should become of Englaro and another person yelling back, “She’s been on the cross for 17 years!”
But sometimes, Dormant Beauty’s dialectical approach is more complexly layered, such as when Senator Beffardi asks why he should vote against his conscience, and he’s told that if he’ll be effectively euthanizing his political career if he doesn’t play along. Besides, Baffardi is reminded, all politicians are just “character actors,” rising and falling based on how convincing they can be while speaking the lines that have been written for them. That’s what Dormant Beauty comes down to again and again, and that’s what ultimately helps the movie overcome some of its overdetermined construction. Whether it’s Roberto dealing with the brother he feels obliged to help, or Divine Mother forcing her entire household to pray as loud as it can, Dormant Beauty always comes back to the difficult decisions that family members have to make for each other, contrasted with the huffiness of outsiders who try to project their own beliefs onto someone else’s business.