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August 05, 2005

The Religion Hour (My Mother's Smile)

L'Ora di Religione (Il Sorriso di Mia Madre)
Marco Bellocchio - 2002
Elleu Italy Region 2 DVD

Bernardo Bertolucci and Marco Bellocchio will probably always be linked for me. Both are about the same age, Bellocchio in 1939, Bertolucci in 1940. Bertolucci's first feature, The Grim Reaper was made in 1962. Bellocchio's debut feature, Fists in His Pocket followed in 1965. Both contributed short films to the omnibus feature Love and Anger. I first saw films by both filmmakers at about the same time in New York City around 1970. Unlike Bertolucci, Bellocchio has remained an Italian filmmaker both in language and subject matter. What this has meant is that his films have received inconsistent distribution theatrically. I have only recently started to catch up on some of Bellocchio's films through video and DVD.

Not being Italian or Catholic, I am limited in my understanding of certain aspects of The Religion Hour.
Still, there is much to appreciate in this film. Ernesto, a painter, and declared atheist, learns though a Vatican representative that his mother is being considered for sainthood. Ernesto is asked to testify to his mother's status as a martyr. While not containing the black comic anarchy of his early films, Bellocchio is still examining the institutions of the Church as he did in In the Name of the Father, and the institution of the family as in the aforementioned Fists in His Pocket and China is Near. Again Bellocchio has a protagonist who is placed in the situation of having to confront others with their hypocrisy while fighting to hold on to his ideals.

The film begins with a scene of Ernesto's young son, Leonardo, alone, talking, telling someone or something not seen to not bother him. Leonardo explains to his mother, Irene, that he has learned in school that God is omnipresent, and Leonardo would like to be totally alone. The Religion Hour of the title refers to the class Leonardo is taking in school. Leonardo and some other characters take the Catholic identity as a form of insurance to go to Heaven. Ernesto has to confront other family members who have pointedly identified as Catholic, and are campaigning for the mother's beatification for social status. The mother's smile of the title refers to the smile that the family members share. The meaning of the smile is subject to misunderstanding. Ernesto sees his mother's smile as an indication of passive indifference. Ernesto's smile is viewed as mocking and insulting by others.

Not knowing Italian, I was not able to take advantage of the interviews with Bellocchio and the actors on the DVD. In cineuropa.org there is an interview with Bellocchio discussing The Religion Hour. The conclusion of the interview can also be applied to Bellocchio's other film. "A persistent state of dissatisfaction should encourage us to fight. This film is not about resignation and is not depressing."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 5, 2005 06:05 PM