At a spry 83-years-old, director Marco Bellocchio is about 18 months the junior to last year’s Cannes acclaimed octogenarian, “EO” prizewinner Jerzy Skolimowski, though the Italian maestro’s latest film has a much creakier feel. That’s hardly a fatal flaw, as Bellochio’s Cannes-premiering “Kidnapped” offers the comforting pleasures of a cracking tale well told, a handsome tour of Old World locales and a throwback mix of Big Themes served on heaping platters.
The story certainly lends itself to such heft, as it follows the true tale of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy confiscated from his family by the all-powerful church and raised to be a priest. What pushed the local authorities to turn up unannounced one night — making demands of a Jewish family that would echo persecutions past and to come – becomes clear when church police set their sight on a 6-year-old boy and tell his parents, “Someone betrayed you. Someone baptized your son in secret. “
In the ironclad theocracy of the Papal States, Jews couldn’t house Christians and church authority was never in question. Not that beleaguered parents Momolo (Fausto Russo Alesi) and Marianna (Barbara Ronchi) don’t try their best. In real life, as in the film, the Mortara family turned their child’s abduction into an international scandal, drawing support from liberal reformers and Jewish organizations across Europe and North America, and in doing so created a wealth of archival materials for Bellocchio to explore.
In hewing the historical record, “Kidnapped” evolves in tone and tenor as the story goes on. What begins as a somber persecution drama leads to a bittersweet tale of childhood resilience, as Edgardo (young actor Enea Sala, heartbreaking in the role) must adjust to new life at an orphanage run by the Pope himself and filled with fellow Jews pulled from their families and schooled in the reigning faith. In one powerful scene, Bellocchio cuts between Edgardo taking Communion and the rest of the clan chanting Shabbat prayers with an empty place at the table.
At its most interesting, “Kidnapped” doesn’t so much pit one faith against another, casting oppressors against oppressed; instead, the film sets individuals against larger institutions. At one point, a sympathetic party begs Momolo to lie to his son, to tell the boy that his mother has fallen deathly ill. But the grief-stricken father cannot in good conscience add more strain to Edgardo’s load; Momolo wants the best for his son, not a larger moral win for the wider cause. On the flip side, church officials offer the family a perfectly simple solution: Convert, they say, and the boy can return home.
Overseeing this kidnapping campaign is Pope Pius IX (Paolo Pierobon, both menacing and avuncular). Like Momolo and Marianna, who could never heed the call to convert, the aptly named Pius is also a servant of his faith. He is also the most vaunted and affluent servant of that particular faith and that only hardens his resolve. What do you get the Pope who has everything? Well, why not a new set of converts, plucked from his own backyard and raised in his home?
Indeed, Pius’ historical role as bridge between the Papal States and the insurgent Kingdom of Italy drives the film’s second half, as “Kidnapped” becomes a trial movie, pitching two competing legal authorities against one another, before transitioning into an historical epic about the birth of Italy.
Through it all, Bellocchio maintains a muted visual pallet and a somewhat creaky pace. The film’s epic sweep and biblical themes yearn for the splendor of film and are ill served by crystalline digital cinematography. Mixed with a treacly score and a handful of Big Acting Moments, “Kidnapped” can feel overwrought all too often, coming together in a package a bit too daytime soap for its own good.
If the power of the story and the elegance of Bellocchio’s touch come through all the same, “Kidnapped” still leaves a slightly bittersweet taste. Like Edgardo himself, the film has an air of dashed promise.