In "Dormant Beauty," a messy, fairly intriguing drama from director Marco Bellocchio, a recent Italian news story becomes fodder for a sprawling examination of life, death and the eternal riddle of Isabelle Huppert's apparent agelessness.
In 2009 the father of Eluana Englaro removed Englaro's feeding tube and, backed by the judicial system, allowed his daughter to die after almost 17 years in a coma. The Italian people were torn up and divided; on one side, the Vatican (and then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) expressed outrage over Englaro's supposed right to die. On the other side were those who supported the decision to remove the feeding tube.
The film jumps, often unsteadily, among three thematically linked fictional narratives. Huppert plays a famous actress whose own daughter lies in a coma, mirroring Englaro's state. A conscience-stricken senator, given great natural gravity by Toni Servillo, wrestles with an imminent Parliament vote on the Englaro case as his own grown daughter (Alba Rohrwacher) joins the street protests against Englaro's right to die. There, in a flash, the daughter falls in love with a boy (Michele Riondino) on the other side of the ideological fence.
The third story concerns a doctor (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, the director's son) and his obsessive interest in the life of a suicidal drug addict (Maya Sansa). Bellocchio's film asks the big questions, and he's certainly artist, craftsman and filmmaker enough not to settle for simplistic answers. The limitations of "Dormant Beauty" are structural; veering this way and that, the movie feels restless and distracted, and there's little of the force evident in "Vincere," Bellocchio's recent and fascinating biopic of Mussolini's secret wife.
Still, the actors know what they're doing. In their subtle delineation of souls in ethical torment, Huppert and Servillo lead the way. I tend to sympathize with Bellocchio's longtime colleague and costume designer Sergio Ballo, who said of "Dormant Beauty": "It does not entirely hold together." Nonetheless, he added, the director's "ability to listen" extends to how he listens to his characters, all contending with mortality and its necessary choices.
"Dormant Beauty" - 2 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating (nudity, some language and violence)
Running time: 1:55; in Italian with English subtitles