For 17 years, from 1992 until her death in 2009, Italy’s Eluana Englaro was kept alive in a coma, the end result of a car accident. She became a focal point for partisans on both sides of the euthanasia spectrum; embattled Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi even tried to change the law so that her feeding tube couldn’t be removed.
Englaro never appears onscreen in Marco Bellocchio’s tough, poignant drama—set during her final days—though she haunts the proceedings like a spirit. The film’s intentionally jagged first third introduces a bevy of characters: A senator (Toni Servillo) grapples with whether to cast a vote for Berlusconi’s amendment, while his pro-life daughter (Alba Rohrwacher) falls in love with a young man protesting for Englaro’s right to die. Meanwhile, a wealthy woman (Isabelle Huppert) prays for her own comatose child to wake up, while dealing with family members who find her impassioned religiosity off-putting. And in the most moving thread, a suicidal drug addict (Maya Sansa) rediscovers the will to live with the help of a determined doctor (the director’s son Pier Giorgio).
Plenty of lesser films have done the intertwining-narrative gimmick, and Bellocchio doesn’t entirely escape the soap-operatic traps of the genre. There’s a heavy reliance on narrative coincidence, as well as a tendency for lesser parts to come off as hollow symbols. Nonetheless, Bellocchio counters these flaws with an energetically combative aesthetic (he makes you feel like you’re riding out a sociopolitical tempest, careening between perspectives) and an overarching humanism that gives equal weight to the many feelings stirred up by this hot-button situation.
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