Four stories and at least that many themes interlace in Dormant Beauty, veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio's latest bid to combine the personal and the political. The central issue is euthanasia, which became a national argument in 2009, when the father of Eluana Englaro asked to end her life after 17 years in a vegetative state.
The controversy over the real-life case is the backdrop for the director and co-writer's multistrand drama. TV reports on Eluana and her self-serving champion, then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, flicker in the houses, hotels and hospitals where the various stories unspool.
Eluana's case is personal for the senator Uliano Beffardi (The Great Beauty's Toni Servillo) and his daughter Maria (Alba Rohrwacher). His wife and her mother died recently, after Beffardi made the decision not to prolong her anguished life. Maria blames her father, and so joins two other Catholic women on a pilgrimage to the city where Eluana's family awaits a decision on her fate.
Equally devout is the character identified in the credits only by her son's mocking name for her: the Divine Mother (Isabelle Huppert). Formerly an actress, this theatrically tearful woman has dedicated herself to the care of her comatose daughter, kept in a flower-choked house that's part hospice, part shrine. Maternal martyr is her finest role ever, although in her sleep she recites lines from another great one: Lady MacBeth.
Meanwhile, a suicidal junkie (Maya Sansa) stumbles from a church to a hospital, where a young physician (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) insists on keeping her alive. (The doctor is played by the director's son; the druggie by the actress who had the central role in Good Morning, Night, Bellocchio's movie about former Prime Minister Aldo Moro's 1978 kidnapping and murder by New Left militants.)
Amid all these death-focused characters, life keeps messily asserting itself. Maria falls crazily in love with Roberto (Michele Riondino), who's demonstrating against her viewpoint. Roberto's burden is a younger brother who's far from dormant; the kid simmers with anger, and often boils over.
For Beffardi, the matter of Eluana is also political. He's a member of Berlusconi's party, but feels he must vote against the bill that would force doctors to keep her on life support. The senator's cynical colleagues tell him to vote against his conscience, because odds are the woman will die before the law goes into effect.
The movie is at its most broadly satirical in depicting the Italian legislators. They luxuriate in Roman-style baths, and when Italy's classical heritage isn't enough to fortify them, they turn to a colleague who's also a psychiatrist, and thus can prescribe drugs. (For Beffardi, he suggests just "a light balancer.")
The film's title, which could be translated as the less stilted Sleeping Beauty, refers in part to the filmmaker's homeland. The events of 2009 are part of the unraveling of Berlusconi's power, and thus a potential awakening for Italy.
American viewers needn't focus on that moral, however. Dormant Beauty has so many elements, and is so beautifully crafted, that it's a pleasure to watch even when the messages seem a little off-key, or the characters appear motivated more by authorial intention than human psychology.
If the film depicts a sleeping Italy, it's an enchanted slumberland of deep shadows and azure twilight. Cinematographer Daniele Cipri's moody images link characters and storylines, while editor Francesca Calvelli weaves them fluidly. Unlike most movies that rely on TV news reports to drive the story, Dormant Beauty is complex and humane, and never shrinks to mere spectacle.