When we asked Judge Eric Profancik to take his fists out of his pockets, he mumbled something about two birds and a bush. We saw a pile of feathers next to his review—which we decided to ignore.
"I'll get rid of everyone for you today, including myself."
This month, April, 2006, marks my third anniversary with DVD Verdict. From almost the first day that I became a Judge in 2003, people were talking about the Criterion Collection. Their discs were spoken of with reverence, ladled with praise, and always quickly grabbed up when they became available for review. I've wanted to review a Criterion disc since those first days, but it was from a mixture of fear and ignorance that I never tried too hard to get one of the discs. The movies in the collection were ones I had never seen, let alone knew. From time to time I requested one, but it wasn't until Fists in the Pocket (I Pugni in Tasca) that I finally had my opportunity to see what all the talk was about. Would it be everything I had heard? Would my ignorance of classic cinema hinder my appreciation of the film and the collection? Would this first taste encourage me to dive further into the esteemed Criterion Collection?
Facts of the Case
On the outskirts of town live Mama, Augusto, Giulia, Leone, and Alessandro. This highly dysfunctional family is tearing itself apart. Mama, the family matriarch, is blind, requiring special attention that the rest of the family grudgingly gives. Her condition also requires most of the family's money, keeping them stuck in the house on the fringe of town. Augusto, the eldest son, is self-absorbed, wanting nothing more than to marry Lucia and move into town. But because of Mama, her rules, and the money she needs, he is unhappily trapped in the house. Giulia is constantly playing mind games with her brothers. She will make up lies, including pretending to be another woman in Augusto's life, hoping to turn Lucia away. Leone has two problems: he is an epileptic and is also slightly retarded. He, like Mama, requires much supervision, which comes without affection. Lastly is Alessandro. The family, in its dysfunctional way, seems to rotate around him. Also an epileptic, he harbors a deep, dark secret: His family so disturbs him that he wants to kill everyone. He believes that only in death can everyone be happy. Alessandro thus begins his tragic descent to bring solace to his family.
Fists in the Pocket is the directorial debut of Marco Bellocchio (pronounced like Pinocchio). This film is heralded in Italian cinema for shaking up the status quo, for giving new direction and focus to a stale repertoire. I can only tell you that because I learned it in the bonus materials provided in the disc. My ignorance of the classics leaves me in the dark, but I wanted to mention it since this film is considered quite important. I cannot talk about its place in Italian cinema, or in any cinema; I can only discuss my impressions of the film itself.
Fists in the Pocket is fascinating, a true pleasure to watch. A story featuring such family dysfunction, mental instability, and murder must be labeled as dark—and Fists in the Pocket is quite dark. Augusto, Giulia, and Alessandro are despicable people, never garnering a moment of sympathy. Each deserves the trial he or she will endure, for they don't work to heal the family and bring it together. Even as Alessandro's grotesque escapade unfolds, nobody comes forth to stop it. Each person steps back and goes about his or her life. It doesn't dawn on them to put a stop to Alessandro's machinations.
What an abhorrent family, and what a shame that Mama and Leone are trapped in it! Should we have pity for Mama? Is it her fault that the family so detests one another? Is it her doing that the only time the family shows emotion for one another is when they are physically and verbally abusing each other at the dinner table? I don't think so. Unable to truly see what is going on around her, Mama is a prisoner. If she had the use of her eyes, would then she be able to bring her family together? We'll never know, for she can only pass her days with the help of the children who do not honestly love her. And Leone, with his mental incapacity, doesn't know any better. He yearns for love from his siblings, yet they ignore him. Leone doesn't exist until it's bath time or he physically gets in their way. He is a lost soul, deserving of a family that could love him.
Bellochio (In the Name of the Father (Nel Nome del Padre), The Sabbath (La Visione del Sabba)) tells this morbid tale remarkably, with assured direction. This is the only film of his I've seen, but I learned that his later works flow from this film. The themes of anger, family dysfunction, and religion are the heart of his tales; but here, in Fists in the Pocket, Bellochio sets the groundwork. I found his style refreshing, unique, and enjoyable. Perhaps his greatest, yet most obvious, moment in the film comes as Alessandro goes with Augusto to Lucia's birthday party. Alessandro, the antisocial young man, goes off to what initially appears to be a removed corner of the house. As he sits, the partygoers come in and out of view, dancing. It's a complex moment that tells us much about Alessandro as it does Bellochio.
What truly sets the bar high for Fists in the Pocket is the acting, notably from newcomer Lou Castel (The Cassandra Crossing, Planet Venus (Pianeta Venere)), who plays Alessandro. The dysfunctional heart and soul of the movie, Castel interestingly enough isn't Italian. His lines are dubbed, which I will touch upon again in a bit. Regardless of his nationality, Castel is incredible in the role, immersing himself in Alessandro's turmoil, giving each disturbing moment an anchor in reality. You can look him in the eye and see the deviant calculations. It'll send a shiver down your spine.
Back to the hype of the Criterion Collection to discuss the disc itself. Like my peers have noted in other reviews, the packaging declares that Fists in the Pocket has a "new, restored high-definition digital transfer." I expected this disc to be practically flawless, but it is not. The 1.85:1 anamorphic print on this black and white film looks good for a forty-year-old film, but has its weaknesses. Most notable is the flickering brightness. In some scenes, nice deep blacks turn to a dark grey and back to black. Concurrently, the "whites" get a bit washed out then return to normal. On top of that are dirt specks and grain, and detail that is somewhat lacking. In spite of that, I found it very easy to get lost in the look of the movie. Something about it just pulled me in, flaws and all. Moving on to the audio, there is not much to get excited about . The original Italian mono track is inconsistent. Sometimes it has crisp, realistic dialogue and other times it falls into a hollow, muffled sound. I really disliked the sound effects. None of them sounded real. They felt inserted and inaccurate. For example, water running in a sink should not sound like a babbling brook. Additionally (and this may be a nitpick) I often found myself distracted by the dialogue. It seemed that the audio track wasn't in perfect sync with the video. The mouths didn't always match up to the words. Surprisingly, while this applied to Alessandro and his dubbed lines on occasion, it occurred most often with Augusto.
This Criterion contains a handful of extras, though again, not as much as I was expecting from the Collection given Fists in the Pocket's pivotal role in Italian cinema. First there's an honest-to-goodness booklet included. It's not just a simple chapter listing, but it contains the mini-essay "Ripped to Shreds" by Deborah Young, film critic and author of other Bellochio works. This essay gives a quick and dirty background on Fists in the Pocket and its place in the works of Bellochio. It also explains some of the themes and symbols in the film. The booklet also contains a few excerpted questions and answers from an interview with Bellochio. On the disc itself are an Afterword by Bernardo Bertolucci (10 minutes), "A Need for Change: Making Fists in the Pocket" (33 minutes), and the theatrical trailer. Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor) uses his few minutes to praise Bellochio's work and its place in Italian cinema. The meat of the extras is the making of featurette, which contains background information on the film and interviews with Bellochio, Castel, and the actress who portrayed Giulia. Overall, though a bit weaker than I imagined, the entirety of the package helped me understand and appreciate the film more than I would have on an unassisted viewing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Do you like film scores? If so, the score by Ennio Morricone is sublime and perfect. Never interfering with the movie, it enhances and underscores each scene perfectly. You're in for a treat with this aural delight.
Finally, three years later, I have tasted my first Criterion DVD. It's not quite what I had expected after all the buildup. I expected the crème de la crème, but I got an average disc. Perhaps my expectations were misdirected and the hoopla is aimed at the movies on the discs and not the discs themselves? That's probably what it is, for Fists in the Pocket is one twisted, enjoyable film. If you're like me and have never heard of this movie, go out and give it a rental. Fans of Bellochio will savor what many call his first and greatest work.
Fists in the Pocket is hereby found guilty of murder and gross neglect. Sentence is commuted to time served.
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Scales of Justice
• "A Need for Change: Making Fists in the Pocket"
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