Probably not one that’ll end up racking up views on the Vatican Netflix account, this period thriller from Italian director Marco Bellocchio (The Traitor) evokes a shameful episode in Papal history in grippingly operatic, if slightly superficial style.
A shocking story of institutional cruelty, Kidnapped faithfully records the real-life case of a six-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara (Enea Sala), in mid-18th century Bologna. Unknown to his parents, Edgardo has been secretly baptised as a baby by the family’s young maid during a bout of colic. Her intentions are good – she fears that he’s dying and wants him to spare him limbo – but the ramifications of her actions are horrific. For the local inquisitor, and ultimately Pope Pius IX himself (Paolo Pierobon), it’s carte blanche to snatch the child and raise him as a Catholic in the Vatican.
Of course, deep antisemitism underpinned the episode and it’s tempting to wonder if Steven Spielberg, who once lingered over the project, felt that this was ground he’d already covered in Munich and especially Schindler’s List. The historically freighted vision of soldiers stomping through a Jewish family’s home in the dead of night to a soundtrack of sobs and screams is evoked powerfully in the film’s thunderous opening.
Pierobon is a suitably rotten Pontiff, unctuous and dogmatic as a surrogate father figure for the young Edgardo and spiky in the face of criticism. ‘I am standing firm, it is the world that is moving towards the precipice,’ he barks as the pressure, led by the young boy’s frantic dad (Fausto Russo Alesi) and Jewish leaders, cranks up. Barbara Ronchi is great as Edgardo’s anguised mum, Marianna – full of pain and fury as those entreaties hit one brick wall after another.
Kidnapped is an elegant film, full of gorgeous nocturnal cityscapes and baroque interiors to which Bellocchio adds the odd leftfield flourish. We witness the Pope’s fever dream of a group of rabbis entering his chambers and forcibly circumcising him. In another scene, the young Edgardo visualises Jesus climbing down from a crucifix and exiting the church, like a man truly done with this shit. The former works a lot better than the latter.
But if Kidnapped aims to dive into the subconscious of its characters, it gets stuck on the surface. As the now-twentysomething Edgardo (played with an unlikable edge by Leonardo Maltese) becomes the story’s focus, he remains an enigma. His inner conflict is gestured at but never deeply explored in a film that never quite puts us in his shoes.
Kidnapped premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.