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    My Mother's Smile

    It saint necessarily so

    Most Italians can cheerfully coexist with contradictory currents, but for professed atheist Ernesto in "My Mother's Smile," seeing his mother on the fast track to sainthood is over the top. Can he thwart the inevitable or does he even want to?


    Family relationships have occupied Marco Bellocchio, beginning with his startling debut film, "Fists in the Pocket" in 1965. In it, a deranged young man gently eliminates his dim-witted younger brother as the start of a demonic chain of events. In his latest effort, "My Mother's Smile," the deed has already happened. There's another disturbed young man, Egidio, but this time he has fatally stabbed his mother. Instead of plunging family affairs into the great abyss, the pearly gates now beckon.

    Original title: Ora di religione, Il sorriso di mia madre.
    Written and directed by: Marco Bellocchio.
    Cast: Sergio Castellitto, Maurizio Donadoni, Piera Degli Esposti, Toni Bertorelli, Alberto Mondini, Jacqueline Lustig, Gianni Schicchi, Chiara Conti, Gigio Alberti, Gianfelice Imparato.
    Cinematography: Pasquale Mari.
    In Italian with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    New York Film Festival 2002

    The Magdalene Sisters
    Man Without a Past
    My Mother's Smile
    The Son
    Talk to Her

    Festival site
    Unbeknownst to Ernesto (Sergio Castellitto), his mother is on the way to becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic firmament. It's instant conflict, because Ernesto has is own religion, atheism. The Picciafuoco family, principally Aunt Maria (Piera degli Espositi), has been pitching the case, and the final interviews with Vatican higher-ups loom.

    Ernesto is a disaffected graphic artist with a host of problems. His editor has been less than pleased with his output. Living apart from his wife Irene (Jacqueline Lustig), he maintains a speaking relationship with her primarily to be close to his son Leonardo (Alberto Mondini).

    Leonardo is just at the age when matters of religion loom large for the first time. Ernesto treads cautiously rather than trying to refute outright what Leonardo has brought home from his religion class. (The Italian title for this film, "L'ora di religione" is the name for the optional hour of religious instruction in the public schools.) A few rather profound thoughts about God's presence in the world get batted about, but questions outnumber answers.

    My Mother's Smile  
    Ernesto decides to probe a bit and arranges a meeting with the religion teacher. As luck would have it, she turns out to be a smashing beauty (Chiara Conti) and also a budding art student. She charms and seduces Ernesto, whose head is now spinning. Was it chance or was it really a setup by the family to get his active participation in the sainthood process? Ernesto is too confused to entertain much suspicion, even though she happened to be very familiar with his graphics career.

    Meanwhile, one make-or-break issue has surfaced. Did Mom forgive her killer-son before he stabbed her? If not, no dice and goodbye fame, a gargantuan portrait just ready for the occasion not withstanding. Ernesto is not so willing to play the game (he does have some principles after all), but on the all-important question he can't opine because he wasn't present. So things are left hanging. There's not even a dramatic conversion back to the faith by Ernesto to make the first of the required miracles.

    In someone else's hands, this story could have been set as a comedy. Bellocchio, however, has too much to say. This film marks the most pointed criticism of the recent explosion of new Roman Catholic saints. After the initial political tempest, there hasn't been much mention of religion classes in the media, pro or con. Bellocchio seems more eager to point up hypocrisy and excesses than explore issues of spirituality. Leaving aside the inherent possibilities for manipulation, the film also skips a few intermediate steps in the sainthood process.

    So it's no surprise that official Vatican circles frowned on it. A reception scene that pits Ernesto against an aging monarchist backed up by Vatican toadies in full regalia (costume) didn't win points either.

    In spite of the controversy — and critical appreciation — "My Mother's Smile" didn't find a great audience in Italy. Here in the U.S., it has been making the festival circuit, with these two screenings at New York Film Festival 2002 the latest. The film's mixture of psychological study, family intrigue, and social commentary will have less resonance outside of Italy. And even though it may be too intellectual for popular appeal, nevertheless Bellocchio once again shows his mastery at exploring the psyche.

    By the way, don't fret too much for lead actor Sergio Castellitto's soul after this atheist excursion. He also played the venerable saint (an undisputed one) Padre Pio in a recent Italian TV series.

    OCTOBER 5, 2002

    Reader comments on My Mother's Smile:

  • review of My Mother's Smile   from Kate Johnson, May 22, 2005
  • My Mother's Smile   from Janet Kenny, Jun 13, 2005

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