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With: Lou Castel, Paola Pitagora, Marino Masé, Liliana Gerace, Jeannie McNeil, Pier Luigi Troglio
Written by: Marco Bellocchio
Directed by: Marco Bellocchio
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 105
Date: 10/31/1965

Fists in the Pocket (1965)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Fists' of Fury

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many top film writers, including Pauline Kael and David Thomson, have called Marco Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket (1965) one of the all time great debut features.

One of the marks of a great debut, however, lies in the work that comes afterward, and most of these same writers agree that Bellocchio has yet to live up to his first film. Although his very recent films, like My Mother's Smile (2002) and Good Morning, Night (2003) have come close.

Nevertheless, Fists in the Pocket, recently released on DVD (retailing for $29.95) from the Criterion Collection, is still a shocking, forceful film, and it seems every bit as alive today as it must have in 1965.

The film depicts one of the screen's most disturbing dysfunctional families (even before "dysfunctional family" became a catch-phrase). Alessandro (played by Lou Castel but dubbed into Italian by Paolo Carlini) is the focus. Shifty and steely-eyed, Alessandro has epilepsy, as does his brother, the retarded Leone (Pier Luigi Troglio).

Alessandro can't stay focused on any one thing. At one point, he talks about raising chinchillas, but quickly forgets about it. He easily loses patience. When his blind mother (Liliana Gerace) asks him to read her the paper, he gets so bored that he begins making up news.

Alessandro is mostly interested in his beautiful sister Giulia (Paola Pitagora); he spends the majority of his time with her, and indeed, the movie subtly hints that these two may be more than siblings.

Only Augusto (Marino Masé) seems to have escaped -- mostly. He holds a job, provides food for the family, and has a "normal" fiancée (Jeannie McNeil). But even Augusto gets caught up in the nasty squabbles around the family dinner table.

The film really takes off when Alessandro decides that Augusto would be better off if he weren't saddled with this broken family, so he plans to load them all in a car and drive them off a cliff. His plan fails, but his impulses remain.

When this film was first released, Italian cinema was still steeped in the Neorealsim movement that had cropped up just after World War II, as well as epic pageants like The Leopard (1963) and 8 1/2 (1963). Bellocchio's film -- along with Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution -- came like a blast of angry wind, rattling the stagnant placidity and waking people up.

Many citizens, the Catholic Church in particular, violently opposed the film for its attack on "family values."

Students at the time adopted it as part of their manifesto and carried that attitude with them as they went into the famous student revolt that lasted from 1968 to 1977. Many critics credited Bellocchio for tapping into the country's mood, even though Fists in the Pocket has no overt political messages.

Less a stylist than Bertolucci and his other countrymen, Bellocchio opted for a simple, straightforward cinematic approach, using black-and-white film and a medium distance (much like the French New Wave films of the same period). It was the characters and their actions that counted. When Alessandro attends his mother's funeral, he restlessly shifts from behind the sheets that are draped up all over the room, to the coffin itself, which he uses as a footrest.

Without resorting to blatant exploitation, Fists in the Pocket still has the power to shock, mostly because of its frankness about death. Not even the bonds of family can withstand our ultimate destiny.

Even the score by the great Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) sounds like a funeral march.

But do not mistake Fists in the Pocket for a depressing dirge. Rather, it's still a dynamic, highly engaging assault, and one with a ferocious pulse.

DVD Details: The Criterion Collection has restored the film, using the original camera negative, to a near-perfect sheen. Extras include interviews with the director and various cast members, a trailer, and a "video afterword" by Bernardo Bertolucci.

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