Review of "Kidnapping": Marco Bellocchio's intriguing, if overheated, historical drama about a Jewish boy kidnapped by the Church

Review of “Kidnapping”: Marco Bellocchio’s intriguing, if overheated, historical drama about a Jewish boy kidnapped by the Church

At 83, Italian author Marco Bellocchio has had a streak in recent years, with the success both at home and abroad of his 2019 epic about the Sicilian mafia, The traitorand his first television miniseries, Outside, Nightplaying well around Europe.

His latest feature film: the 31stst in a prolific career that began at age 24 with his hit drama, Fists in the pocket – probably not his best, but not really a critique in a filmography full of memorable work, including other recent films such as WIN AND Good morning, night.

Related stories


The bottom line

History sounds better than history.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Launch: Enea Sala, Leonardo Maltese, Paolo Pierobon, Fausto Russo Alesi, Barbara Ronchi
Director: Mark Bellocchio
Screenwriters: Marco Bellocchio, Susanna Nicchiarelli

2 hours 5 minutes

Kidnapping (Kidnapped), a period piece about a Jewish boy taken from his family to live in the Vatican in 1858, may not live up to those titles, but it’s an engaging and somewhat fascinating film nonetheless, telling a true story that probe the historic Italian anti-Semitism and the follies of the Catholic Church.

Full of the director’s typical operatic flourishes — cameras floating down corridors or over balconies as characters race towards disaster, emotional crescendos set to a score by Fabio Massimo Capogrosso — it can also be quite a stuffy affair, with plenty of dramatic speeches and religious symbolism that ranges from the satirical to the heavy-handed. What seems to fascinate Bellocchio most of the story are not so much the characters, who seem stereotypes whether they are Jews or Catholics, but what he tells of an era in which the reactionary Pope Pius IX began to lose power in the face of the newborn Kingdom of Italy.

In the midst of that struggle is the sad story of 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara (played by Enea Sala, later Leonardo Maltese), one of the many children of Solomone “Momola” Mortara (Fausto Russo Alesi) and his wife, Marianna (Barbara Ronchi), a Jewish couple who live comfortably among the Bolognese bourgeoisie. That comfort quickly ends when the local priest and inquisitor Feletti (Fabrizio Gifuni) orders the soldiers to take baby Edgardo away, explaining that the child has been secretly baptized by the family maid. The only way for the couple to get it back is to convert to Catholicism, which they refuse to do.

Written by Bellocchio and Susanna Nicchiarelli, who were inspired by a book on the story by Daniele Scalise, the screenplay follows Edgardo’s long and traumatic journey from the hands of his family to those of Pius IX (a perfidious Paolo Pierobon), who puts him in the Vatican with other Jewish boys forced to learn catechism and become obedient Catholics. Back in Bologna, Momola does everything possible to recover his son, speaking to the local and international press, which caricatures the Pope as a kidnapping monster, and enlisting rabbis and Jewish organizations to support his claims.

We can not” the Pope replies each time, that it’s basically Latin for “go to hell,” and that leads to Edgardo being fully indoctrinated into the church while his father watches helplessly and his mother begins to lose her mind. Looker paints these sequences in broad strokes, with Ronchi going a bit overboard as a grieving Jewish mom who will never let her baby go, even if her behavior only makes it worse.

There is little subtlety in Kidnapping, but such, perhaps, were the tumultuous times in which the film is set, especially after the story collides with the 1860s, when the Papal States, which were governed by the church, were conquered by an Italian army which left the Pope little ground stand outside the Vatican. Cornered but refusing to give up any control, including over the now fully Catholic Edgardo, Pierobon (Human capital) portrays Pope IX as a delusional conservative fanatic whose lust for power and fear of the Jews – illustrated in a silly nightmare of circumcision – drives him to extreme positions.

There are some memorable moments where the film captures the confusion Edgardo felt as he is forced to worship a different god, and one he repeatedly learns was killed by Jews like his family. In a rather exaggerated scene, the boy climbs a giant statue of Jesus to remove the iron spikes from his arms and feet, hoping to save his new idol. Other scenes revel in the hypocrisy of a church that is basically brainwashing young Italians, teaching them mercy while at the same time torturing them psychologically. The prayer sequences within the observant house of the Mortaras and the upper Vatican are often interspersed, though Bellocchio tries to differentiate between the two, contrasting the loving and rather modest family against a powerful institution about to crumble.

When that happens, Edgardo may be lost forever to both his parents and Judaism, e Kidnapping it doesn’t exactly end on a hopeful note, even if Pius IX gets some sort of comeback. As Bellocchio reveals, the Vatican lost much of its territory after 1870, but remained powerful enough to dominate the Italian population, including young people who weren’t even Catholic to begin with. According to an interview with the director, the working title of the film was The Conversionand finally we wonder if Edgardo’s conversion, forced upon him as it was, has become too much to resist.