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From Cannes: ‘Rapito’ is a Beautiful, Confusing Period Piece

Dir. Marco Bellocchio — 3 Stars

Enea Sala and Paolo Pierobon star in "Rapito."
Enea Sala and Paolo Pierobon star in "Rapito." By Courtesy of Kavac Film & IBCmovie
By Millie Mae Healy, Crimson Staff Writer

“Rapito,” Italian for “Kidnapped,” is a stunning period piece about the Roman Catholic Church’s kidnapping of six-year-old Edgardo Mortara (Enea Sala) from his Jewish family because he was secretly baptized as a baby. Though it is emotionally effective, it suffers from a lack of clarity and organization as Marco Bellocchio’s beautiful visuals fail to bring the confusing plot together.

Starting in 1858, the film follows the dissolution of the Catholic Church’s power in Italy. Edgardo’s mother Marianna Padovani (Barbara Ronchi) and father Momolo Mortara (Fausto Russo Alesi) give moving performances as aggrieved and bereft parents fighting to get their son back. They are both given moments to showcase their acting ability and do so movingly, displaying nuance as they move through the stages of grief and try to keep the rest of their family going.

However, the presentation of the plot detracts from their powerful performances. Despite some displays of agony and then token resistance, there is almost complete acquiescence to the Church’s kidnapping at every opportunity. Momolo quickly accepts his son is going to be taken and gives him a lackluster farewell speech, allowing Edgardo to think he doesn’t truly care. When his parents are given a chance to see Edgardo in Rome, they both try to placate him and encourage him not to act out, despite being advised otherwise. They are in an impossible situation against the incredibly powerful Catholic Church, but even within the context of the film, don’t take actions they are told could help free him for fear of upsetting him in an already deeply upsetting situation.

Sala as young Edgardo is convincing and does incredibly well with the mature material. However, beyond two crying outbursts where he calls for his parents, Edgardo displays a complete meek acceptance upon being enrolled in a Catholic school and being told he is now a Christian. It is entirely believable that he is simply in shock as such a young child in an incredibly traumatic situation, but it is strange that “Rapito” doesn’t take the time to show what the stakes are for the dozens of Jewish boys who are being forced to learn Catholic prayers and scripture in order to become Catholic priests. None of the boys ever misbehave or mention their heritage or faith — especially since there is never any mention of explicit threat or consequence for doing so — leaving the danger of their situation completely unsaid.

Similarly, Momolo is criticized by leaders in the local Jewish community for his actions and his handling of the case’s publicity, but it is never spelled out what he should have done. The leaders of the Jewish community in Italy then take over and make some minor attempts to help, but none of their plans accomplish anything or seem particularly fleshed out either, making it seem like incompetence was a factor instead of just the deep injustice of an ancient and powerful institution.

The film uses dates and major historical events to keep track of the narrative, suggesting that there should be a followable through line, but after the first third heavily focuses on Edgardo and his family, the narrative irregularly switches between the Pope’s personal insecurities, meetings of the Jewish community, and religious instability and fighting in Italy. This is further obscured by several dream sequences and imagined events that, though interesting, are mostly underwhelming and distract from the story.

Similarly, once Edgardo is taken, the fight for his Jewishness is almost entirely forgotten, as he numbly assimilates himself into Catholic tradition. Though he is seen saying the Shema, a Jewish prayer, during his first night in Rome as he promised he would, and proudly tells his mother so during her one visit, beyond this, the Jewishness of the abducted boys becomes a largely forgotten detail, with not enough narrative attention paid to this indignity. “Rapito” quickly becomes a film about the horror of a boy being taken from his parents rather than a cultural genocide.

Despite these shortcomings, it is a beautifully set and shot film, drawing strong visual distinctions between the different characters and settings. For example, the opulence of Catholic Church and Rome in contrast with Edgardo’s cozy childhood home is particularly effective, as his warm memories of a happy childhood are brainwashed away.

Though “Rapito” is important and compelling, it suffers from a lack of coherence about the stakes and what the heart of the narrative truly is.

—Staff writer Millie Mae Healy can be reached at milliemae.healy@thecrimson.com.

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