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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Fists in the Pocket

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Director: Marco Bellocchio
Country: Italy
Year: 1965

Background

Marco Bellocchio was born in 1939, studied philosophy in Milan, and studied film at the Centro sperimentale di cinematografia (I’m betting that translates roughly as “Center for Experimental Filmmaking”). After graduating, Bellocchio rang up Michelangelo Antonioni, and asked for a job as an assistant director. Antonioni refused. Borrowing money from his family, he filmed Fists in the Pocket at a villa owned by his mother, which is funnier after you’ve seen the film that he ended up making: A scurrilous, black-hearted assault on bourgeois morality featuring incest, fratricide, matricide, and gratuitous rat-killing.

Bellocchio showed an unfinished print of the film to the programmers of the Venice Film Festival, who were unanimous in their assessment: “Don’t even bother completing this morally reprehensible, godless, anti-social, anti-Catholic…” etc. Undeterred, Bellocchio premiered Fists in the Pocket at the Locarno Film Festival, where it caused the expected uproar. The Christian Democrat Party called for it to be banned outright, and even Luis Buñuel proclaimed himself offended.

The following is an excerpt from a review on IMDb, which captures the visceral impression the film made on 1965 audiences:

“…The wonderfully atmospheric black-and-white cinematography seemed to be developed from some dingy dream which dared to bring out into the open the most heinous family secrets, yet the utterly dispassionate fury which animated the most frenzied sequences was so freakish it was almost funny… this tale of sound and fury seems to have been made in the kind of frenzied reverie that is analogous to the stream-of-conscious jumble which William Faulkner used at the beginning of THE SOUND AND THE FURY, and to the same effect, i.e., to chart a family’s disintegration as a mirror to the decaying grandeur of a dying society.”

You took the words right out of my mouth, “Daryl Chin.” If that is your real name.

Bellocchio went on to direct over 30 films, and he ain’t dead yet. In 2007, he served on the Cannes jury. As of this writing (March 2009), his film about Mussolini’s secret lover (Vincere) is in post-production.

Synopsis

Before watching today’s film, I skimmed a couple of reviews, but the only thing that registered was “dysfunctional family meltdown.” Thus, I was jarred by Ennio Morricone’s opening title music, which (accurately, as it turns out) declared Fists in the Pocket as a creepy Italian horror film.

As the titles end, someone is reading a (cut-and-paste ransom-note-style) letter:

“Dear Lucia: Now I’m positive that I’m expecting Augusto’s child. That makes me his only real girlfriend. You’re just a pastime for him. Leave him – for your own good.”

This is one of those films that drops you in the middle of a disorienting milieu, and assumes that you’re smart enough to figure it out. In this case, the filmmakers were wrong: about a half hour in, I still couldn’t get the characters straight (Are those two boyfriend/girlfriend or brother/sister? Wait – is the blind matriarch named Leone, or is that the village idiot brother?), so I had to pause the film and look up the IMDb article.

So here’s the scoop: Reading the letter? That would be Lucia. She’s the fiancée of Augusto:

Augusto is the oldest and most (outwardly) normal brother in a creepy, formerly-wealthy-but-now-in-decline family living in an enormous crumbling villa on the outskirts of town.

Augusto has two brothers: Alessandro (often called by the diminutives Ale or Sandro) and Leone. Ale and Leone are both epileptic, but Leone is the idiot and Ale is merely a sociopath. Augusto also has a sexy sister, Giulia:

She’s not epileptic (as far as I can tell), but she is mildly sociopathic and appears to be giving up the goodies to her brother Ale. Presiding over this mess is the eternally sad (and also [physically and metaphorically] blind) family matriarch, Mama.

Back to Lucia: “It was Giulia, wasn’t it?” …who wrote the accusatory letter, she means. Just to recap, Giulia is sleeping with her epileptic brother Ale, while simultaneously claiming that her brother Augusto impregnated her in an effort to break up Augusto’s impending marriage to Lucia.

Lucia and Augusto fight, unsurprisingly, and Augusto drives home alone. On the road home, he picks up Giulia, who is being sexually harassed by one of those crazy scooter gangs. “Ale left me a love poem…” she tells Augusto, who is gripping the steering wheel grimly.

At dinner that night, Leone is slurping his soup loudly, and a feral cat is eating the food off blind Mama’s plate. Ale is kicking (or clumsily playing footsy with) Giulia, who kicks him violently in return. Augusto finishes dinner and retires to his den. He asks Giulia to join him. As soon as Augusto leaves the room, Ale takes his place at the head of the table.

Giulia admits that she wrote the letter: “I wrote this for your own good. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

“I’ve told you a thousand times: I just want to be left alone!” responds Augusto, voicing a sentiment that will echo ironically throughout the film. After a little more browbeating, Augusto sends Giulia away and calls Ale in to the study. “Why is it, at your age, that you have no ambition? Nice clothes or a little pocket money – those would be modest ambitions, but better than nothing,” Augusto says in frustration, before delivering the coup de grace: “You can’t even type!” Throughout this scene, Ale seems autistic, overly focused on placing his hands in specific positions along the front of Augusto’s desk. Clearly, Ale is not right in the head.

“You’re like a bunch of animals!” explodes Augusto. “And don’t wear my shirts!”

Augusto calls Lucia (his fiancée, remember?) and tries to make up with her, as Ale and Giulia nuzzle erotically in the hallway.

The following morning, some little kid, gender-neutral and never identified in the film, comes to wake up Ale. “Did you get your report card?” Ale demands. The kid admits that the report card was not very good, and Ale showers him/her with abuse: “Cretin! Imbecile! Beast! Ass! Idiot!”

Eventually, Ale offers to help the kid fix the offending report card, with one condition: the kid has to go outside, then come back and give an oral report entitled “What I See on the Terrace.”

The main thing he sees on the terrace turns out to be the alluring Giulia, sunbathing. My God, the view! Of the mountains, I mean. Ale spills ink all over the kid’s report card, causing untold grief. Besides being around-the-bend nuts, Ale is kind of a dick.

Mama asks Ale to read her the paper. He waves his hands crazily in front of her face, then pretends to read headlines from the paper: “Premeditated Matricide: Son Kills Mother for Making Him Take a Bath” “Retired Married Couple Commit Suicide by Turning on the Oven” and so on. Mama just stares morosely into the middle-distance. Because she’s BLIND.

Giulia practices kissing herself in the bathroom mirror. In his room, Ale pretends to fall on a sword. Leone has an epileptic fit. Dinner turns into a full-on slapping fight. Typical family-at-home stuff.

Now Augusto is driving Ale somewhere, and Ale speaks: “Just try to imagine, if you were on your own, without the four of us. For the first time in your life, you could think of yourself. Tell me man to man: Why should you let us poison your whole life?” The streets become more and more narrow, the scene ends, and I suspect that this conversation never took place in, you know, “reality.”

Ale offers to drive the family to the cemetery on All Souls’ Day this year, freeing up Augusto for more pressing matters (like having sex with Lucia). Augusto readily agrees to this suggestion.

The family leaves with twitchy, squinty-eyed Ale at the wheel, but he has left a note behind for Augusto: “I’ll get rid of everyone for you today, I swear. Including myself… I’d like to be cremated.”

On the way to the cemetery, Ale is distracted from his homicidal plan by a couple of jerks in a sports car. Ale gives chase, egged on by Giulia, who appears to be sexually aroused by the possibility of a horrible car crash, much like James Spader in that one David Cronenberg film. Anyway, nobody dies…yet.

Back at home, Lucia arrives, and Augusto puts the moves on: “At least take off your sweater,” he pleads. “You always end up taking it off. Why make me ask for an hour?”

When this line of reasoning does not produce the intended result (e.g. Lucia’s luscious bosom is still encased in its argyle prison), Augusto shows Lucia the murder/suicide letter from Ale: “Read this and tell me if I’m not entitled.”

I’m telling you, this Augusto guy has got some slick moves.

The family returns, intact for the moment. Augusto slaps Ale around and shows Giulia the letter. Ale giggles. Leone, in one of his only lines of dialogue, says aloud what we are all thinking: “What torture it is to live in this house.”

Ale wants to breed chinchillas, but he’ll need some startup capital, and big brother Augusto doesn’t want to take on any debt at the moment: “Mama alone costs three million a year. Between you and me, if we didn’t have her…” and this is point at which you realize that Augusto might be secretly rooting for the success of Ale’s murderous plot.

In the moonlight, Augusto and his buddies are shooting rats. I’ll let you parse out the possible metaphorical significance of the preponderance of rodents (rats, chinchillas) in the film.

Ale drives Mama to the cemetery. She is carsick, so he offers to stop for a moment at Deadman’s Curve. “Sit on the wall…” he says ominously, and then she is gone.

There is a wake for Mama. The shady chinchilla dealer presses Ale for a decision on their big chinchilla deal, but Ale is non-committal. Ale stands next to his mother’s coffin, his hands balled into fists (I was expecting him to place his “fists” into his “pockets” but perhaps that scene is only in the Director’s Cut). Nuns murmur endless prayers. Ale kicks them out and irreverently rests his feet on the coffin.

“I risked life imprisonment for the betterment of this family!” he exclaims to his sister, peevishly. To further emphasize his point, Ale has an epileptic fit.

Giulia and Ale go through Mama’s stuff.

“There’s nobody who’s blind here anymore!” Ale shrieks joyfully, as he throws Mama’s belongings over the railing and into the yard below. Good times.

Meanwhile, Augusto is reprimanding Leone: “That’s the first and last time you sleep outside. And in a stable! That’s not even proper!”

Augusto announces that he’s getting married and moving out. “Mama’s death eliminated… certain expenses.”

Ale and Giulia are burning Mama’s belongings in the yard, as snow falls silently around them. “I’ve lost the desire to raise chinchillas…” proclaims Ale. He and Giulia wander off, arm in arm, while Leone pokes at the smoldering debris. “Mama’s glasses are all charred…”

Did I already mention that Augusto is seeing a prostitute? Yeah. Also: Ale found out. Ale then sleeps with the same prostitute, and (ahem) pumps her for information about his brother. He makes sure that Augusto and Giulia both know about this.

Augusto and Ale attend Lucia’s birthday party, where nouveau riche assholes are doing that weird Italian 60’s hipster dancing – expressionless, everyone wearing narrow suits and dark glasses and smoking, to groovy vibe-heavy lounge music.

Some nerd with big glasses is pontificating: “Man acts like a wolf toward other men.” When his date points out that this equation seems to exclude the female of the species, he retorts haughtily: “Women are incidental to philosophy!” Harrumph! I am Philosopher Man!

Throughout the film, Ale makes strange gestures with his hands, as if he has a Pinocchio nose and he’s wrapping his hand around it. He also talks to himself and listens to opera alone in his room. My Diagnosis: Crazy Like a Soup Sandwich.

“Leone needs a bath. I’ll get it ready for him.” Ale announces, and nobody seems to think that this might be problematic. After slipping him a roofie, Ale pushes Leone’s head under the water, and one more burdensome family member is crossed off the list.

When Giulia realizes that Ale killed Leone, she has an attack of the vapors, and is confined to her bed. This seems like a perfect opportunity for Ale to smother her, but he changes his mind at the last second, because somebody is coming up the stairs.

When Giulia awakens, she is disconsolate. Because Ale murdered her blind Mama and poor, helpless special needs brother Leone? Nope. “You don’t love me!” she pouts to Ale the Sociopath.

“Everything is turning out for the best,” he tells her, soothingly, and decides not to strangle her… yet.

Ale sings opera in his room, loudly. Again with the weird hand gestures. He calls out for Giulia. “Help me!” She sits in bed, steeling herself against his increasingly desperate cries. Is he having a seizure?

The aria ends, the screen freezes on Ale’s contorted face, and… fade out.

What I Liked

I liked the close-up heavy, spontaneous-feeling, rough-edged cinematography. Lou Castel (who is actually Swedish) was riveting as Ale; crazily alive then morosely brooding. All of the acting, in fact, was excellent. Also, I kind of have a crush on Paola Pitagora, the actress who plays Giulia:

There were a few moments of gallows humor that I enjoyed: Ale putting his feet up on the casket, then having a seizure on the floor; Augusto’s unsuccessful “hey, my little brother just threatened to kill my whole family – don’t I deserve at least a quick look at your boobies?” seduction ploy; Ale’s fake newspaper headlines.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

This is the first film in the Janus set that I just did not enjoy. I’m all for genre mashups, but I never felt that Fists in the Pocket did anything interesting as a horror movie, dysfunctional family melodrama, or political allegory. To my bitter disappointment, even the incest subplot never really panned out. I don’t require sympathetic characters (for example, I loved Burn After Reading), but if you’re not going to give me a character I can identify with or root for, you’d better give me something else to chew on. Yes, okay, the disaffected Italian youth of the 1960’s wanted to violently dismantle the status quo – I get it. But Fists in the Pocket failed to tell me anything interesting about why they felt that way.

Bottom line for me: I wasn’t particularly entertained, I didn’t feel that I learned anything new, and I never got to see Ale and Giulia actually getting it on, so… meh.

Should You See It?

This is the first film in the set that I probably wouldn’t recommend to anyone, unless you’re writing a college paper on disaffected Italian youth of the 1960’s, or if you’re inexplicably determined to watch each film in the Janus set. If you’re watching it for the titillation of the incest subplot, trust me: You’re wasting your time. You might want to try Bertolucci’s The Dreamers instead.

Next: Floating Weeds

7 Comments

  1. Well, I think it’s way past dawn, but I agree with you, anyway, that L’Avventura is in a different (much more upper) class than Fists.

    Between L’Avventura and La Dolce Vita, which do you like better? Vita is not in this collection, so I don’t know if I’m straying too far from the task at hand, but I’m curious.

  2. I must take issue with your dismissal of L’Avventura, however. That film is in an entirely different class.

    Swords! At Dawn!

  3. Come on! What about the gripping chinchilla breeding subplot?

  4. Ick.
    (Thus endeth my review.)

    ******************
    After watching Fists, I had to take a step back and look more closely at what this collection is about. Martin Scorsese commented that:

    The Janus Films icon—the black and white image, the lettering, the two faces on the seemingly ancient coin—meant that you were going to see something special, something new, something completely different from anything you’d ever seen before.

    So instead of the rant I had initially composed (see below), I should be focusing on what was special, new or completely different from anything ever seen before. At the time of its release, Fists was most assuredly all of this. The portrayal of family dysfunction was harsh and in your face, and its irreverence was more than likely a shock for its initial audience.

    And now I’m starting to understand more clearly why the movies in this collection have been chosen and others left out.

    However, and whether unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your view, in watching Fists today, there is nothing special, new or completely different that would encourage me to recommend it to anyone else. Instead, I stand by the movies mentioned below. Having the usual hyper-U.S.-centric mindset, they all were special, new and completely different from anything I had ever seen before. (Well, Benigni’s slapstick is quite similar to Steve Martin’s, but the Italian touch was still new to me.)

    And today, for a good dose of irreverence, just give me Throw Momma From The Train.

    ******************
    Original Rant:
    If I hadn’t already seen Il Postino and La Vita e Bella, and several other Roberto Benigni movies—if you haven’t already seen Johnny Stecchino or Il Mostro, don’t wait; see them asap for a great fun couple of romps!—I’d pretty much say fooey (the italiano spelling) to all Italian-made films. This one falls down to the bottom of the heap, right alongside La Dolce Vita and L’Avventura, but with a bigger thud. Well, maybe I should watch La Dolce Vita again. If I remember rightly, it has a couple of nifty cars in it, at least.

  5. Yeah, Giulia (HS)… sigh. I’ll have to look for some other films that she’s in. More interesting films than this one, hopefully.

  6. “Fists in the Pocket” – putting the “fun” back into dysfunctional.

    Going in I immediately thought: “Oh, great, another ITALIAN film.” ***Heavy Sigh*** and the film didn’t start out on a promising note with some guy berating a gal for her stupidity at driving a car. “You do know how to put the car into reverse instead of fourth gear?” Who ARE these people and why do I care?

    With a title like “Fists in the Pocket” – I envisioned a snappy crime film with a bunch of hoods holed up in a hideaway after a botched robbery, slowly turning on each other (much like “Reservoir Dogs”) but what we soon get is a story about a dysfunctional family. A VERY dysfunctional family.

    When our hero arrives home we find him interacting with his blind mother, his retarded brother, another brother who has “issues” and his VERY hot sister. Oh, I’m thinking to myself, it’s a family drama! Oh boy! Let me pull up a chair and pop in the cyanide pills now.

    Instead what follows is the story of a young man and his semi-incestuous relationship with his sister and how he puts it upon himself to wipe out the family so his more normal brother can get married and have a life.

    According to the Netflix wrapper (which I did NOT read before I watched the film) the young man suffers from….wait for it…EPILEPSY! So, yeah, golly he’s crazy for sure! Again, we can grasp that the other “slow” brother is a bit on the “slow” side (as he doesn’t say much) and the sister…well, she suffers from continual hotness.

    When young epileptic brother helps a kid (Cousin? Nephew? Neighbor?) cheat on changing some grades and then forces the kid into spilling ink all over the grade sheet and then blames the kid for doing it and kicking the kid out of the house (after having him check out his sister – did I say she was really hot?) – we know that the epileptic brother (EB) isn’t playing with a full deck – but at least he seems competent (wants to raise chinchillas and kill ‘em for their fur).

    But to better himself the EB takes a driver’s test but fails because of forgetting to use a turn signal. Surely he is a risk to everyone on the road. And those wacky Italians don’t allow someone to get back in and take the test again, they HAVE TO WAIT A MONTH!

    Well the EB has an agenda. He wants to get his license so he can kill everyone in the family instead of competent brother (CB) so, yes, CB can live happily ever after. He lies to everyone and says he has his license.

    After a fight at the dinner table and some weird shenanigans (like the EB “reading” the paper to his blind mother) he insists on driving the family to his father’s grave so they can have a service. The Hot Sister (HS) refuses after a fight with EB but the CB talks her into it at the insistence of the EB.

    Before they leave for the graveyard the EB leaves a note for CB that he’s going to kill them all and that he would like to be cremated.

    When the CB finds this out…does he call the police? Does he borrow a neighbor’s car? Does he try to stop them? No. He calls his girlfriend (Lucia) up for some hanky panky. He even confides in her his EB’s plan and still wants to get in her pants.

    Though the EB plans to off them all, he gets in a game of showmanship with another car on the road and his HS loves the adrenaline rush and it throws him off his game. Sadly…he doesn’t kill himself off along with the family and the film doesn’t end at the 30 minute mark. No…we have to suffer along some more…

    When they return home the CB isn’t all that glad to see the family has returned. And still, the EB isn’t all that excited either. The CB even tells the family what the EB had planned. Showing them the note. Now, you think they would stay far away from him, but instead…they continue to hang with the EB. Especially the HS.

    On another drive, though, the EB finally goes through with part of his plan, pushing his blind mother off a cliff to her death. YAY!

    Dealing now with the aftermath of this (a wake, people visiting, coffee) the EB confides to his HS that he pushed mommy off the cliff. Thus starting his plan to rid the chaff from the wheat and let his poor, poor, competent brother to marry and live happily in the villa.

    When the CB informs the remaining family members that he, indeed, wants to marry but he won’t live there – but in the city – this sends the EB over the edge (I think – I nodded off for a few minutes here and there). The EB then over medicates the Slow Brother (SB) and drowns him in the bath. When the HS finds this out, she confronts the EB but falls down some stairs (I think – see comment about nodding off) and is paralyzed…or…

    Now that SHE has become a burden the EB decides to kill her but then he listens to opera, sings along, goes insane and/or has a seizure and dies??? I don’t know. The film sort of ends there.

    Fin!

    WHAT I LIKED:

    Uh… Well, it was creepy. The Netflix wrapper talked of this being a “horror” film and I didn’t get that (maybe because it didn’t have blood and guts). I also liked the subtlety of the relationship between the HS and EB. It’s not fully revealed that they’re in a relationship but there are enough creepy clues (her biting into his shoulder at one point, her excited to see the prostitute that he slept with) that made that aspect of the film interesting.

    WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

    This is the first film of the collection that the cinematography did nothing for me. There’s one great “over the side of the cliff” shot that was pretty well done and the chase along the mountain road was cool. But most of the film is shot in the villa…

    I absolutely did not care about any of the characters in the film. They’re all self-absorbed dipshits except for maybe the HS and why she can’t get a job or help out with the family or marry rich or disappear on some island somewhere I just don’t know – and it wasn’t explained (at least maybe I missed it when I nodded off).

    The CB’s comments about sleeping with Lucia while the family is probably about to die in a horrible car accident was pretty funny, though.

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Shrug.

  7. A perfect example of a film for its time that doesn’t really translate well in the future.

    Italians watching this film would know the back story and motivations and the film was made for them. We watch it now and get exactly your response. Its too bad really that some otherwise solid film making is a victim of its own strength and gets so dated.

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