In a case recalling Terri Schiavo, the fate of a comatose young woman transfixed Italy in early 2009, when the Berlusconi-led government tried to keep her on life support despite a court's ruling and her father's wishes. The story of Eluana Englaro sits at the center of "Dormant Beauty," in which co-writer and director Marco Bellocchio spins four fictional scenarios around Englaro's final days in a dark, sly portrait of a country divided over the right to die and how to live.
The proportions of the narrative strands sometimes feel off, but the movie pulses with the unpredictability of full-blooded characters. Amid protests, prayer vigils and political maneuvers, Bellocchio parses matters of freedom and faith, devotion and exploitation. Senators lounge in candlelit baths straight out of ancient Rome; an ER is rocked by pandemonium; opinions blare from TV screens. Everyone is trying to save someone.
Toni Servillo, who starred in the director's Oscar-winning "The Great Beauty," is affecting as a senator facing a crisis of conscience: For reasons that gradually become clear, he's compelled to vote against his party's bill to prolong Englaro's life support. It's a move that would end his parliamentary career and perhaps damage his relationship with his devout daughter (Alba Rohrwacher). She participates in anti-euthanasia demonstrations and falls for a man who supports the other side, their love complicated more by his unstable brother than by their difference of opinion.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Dormant Beauty": In the June 13 Calendar section, a capsule movie review for "Dormant Beauty" implied that its director, Marco Bellocchio, also had directed "The Great Beauty" from 2013. "The Great Beauty" was directed by Paolo Sorrentino. —
Elsewhere, a fastidiously Catholic actress (Isabelle Huppert, in high-melodramatic mode) tends to her own coma-stricken daughter, princess-pretty on a breathing machine. Her wannabe-actor son views her career-sidetracking ministrations as a form of suicide. In plainer terms, a young doctor (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Marco's son) keeps vigil over a woman who's a suicidal addict (Maya Sansa). Her small, humbling act of kindness caps the film's rich churn with a quiet surge of emotion.
MPAA rating: None; in Italian with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena