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Ernesto Picciafuoco is a painter and illustrator of children's books,
separated from his wife and father of the boy Leonardo, to whom he is very
close. One day he receives a visit from the mysterious Don Pugni who
informs him that the church has for the past three years been considering
the canonisation his mother, who was murdered by his mentally unstable
brother many years before. He is profoundly shocked by this news, not
merely because he has been kept in the dark by his family, but also because
it contrasts violently with his bohemian lifestyle as an artist, free man
and an atheist. The memory of his mother forces him to come to terms with
the past and also to change the way he thinks about his present
Trapped between the church on the one hand, which is determined to establish the truth of his mother's alleged martyrdom, and his brothers on the other, each in one way or another defeated by life and determined to re-establish the lost honour and respectability of the family, Ernesto presents them with his only mode of defence: his own mother's ironic and detached smile, the smile of a woman he has always considered "passive, simply stupid, and even a little cold". He is constantly on the move, thrown between family get-togethers, an interview with the cardinal Don Piumini, an illogical and anachronistic duel at sunrise with the eccentric Count Bulla to whom honour is everything (and once again it is his mother's wry smile that betrays Ernesto's true feelings), and a meeting with a mysterious and beautiful young woman who may or may not be his son's R.E. teacher; a woman to whom the door to his atelier is curiously always open.
Initially, I was worried that I wouldn't understand the issues dealt with in the film, as they are specifically Italian in nature. Thus the "vittoriano" monument in Rome, detested by the vast majority of the Italian population is a recurrent symbol in the film, as is obviously the theme of sanctification and the papacy as a whole, coupled with the debate about the fascist past and the royal family (in exile since the end of the Second World War). However, I loved the film, because it is not truly about these specific aspects of Italian culture and society; rather it uses these to probe deeper into the human psyche. Obviously the theme of religion plays an important role (incidentally, I don't at all agree with the English translation of the title, the Religion Hour, which means nothing: it should much rather have been translated as "Religious Education" or something of the sort, in order even to come close to the Italian double sense of Leonardo's class at school as well as his father Ernesto's sudden obligation to confront the issue), but it is not about the Catholic religion as such, but rather a more personal faith. In Ernesto's case, this faith turns out not to be in God, but in the love of a woman.
It is to a large extent a very strange film (Bellocchio himself has described it as a "very bizarre detective story"). The duel with Count Bulla, Ernesto's threefold betrayal by his mother's smile (the subtitle of the film), and the unexplained significance of the "vittoriano" monument are all very difficult to understand, but this impact of the film in undeniable, and although any concrete message that the film might be trying to deliver remains opaque, the ultimate point is for the individual viewer to extract some personal significance from the film and to think about some of the themes presented -- I went to see the film in the evening and spent the entire following day thinking about it; how often can you claim that about a film?
The strong performances by the cast and the interesting array of characters coupled with the dreamlike and at times surreal images make for a beautiful, at times magical (such as the wonderful scene at the end when Ernesto chases Diana around his flat), and always intriguing. Beautiful: 10/10