Fists in the Pocket
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While many international devotees of Italian cinema in 1965 were transfixed by Federico Fellini's first full-length foray into color with Juliet of the Spirits, another filmmaker was making a splash with his debut: Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca), from filmmaker Marco Bellocchio. In a move that would be duplicated by independent filmmakers for decades, the project was put together with money scraped together from relatives and shot on his family property outside Piacenza.
One of the more confrontational films of its era, Fists in the Pocket explores the nihilistic course of a young man named Alessandro (Lou Castel) who decides to exterminate his family, consisting of an invalid mother and three siblings. Plagued by seizures and living only to raise chinchillas, he shows no regard for normal social mores like religion, nationalism, or family pride; fascinatingly, the real world would follow suit shortly after with the status quo feeling the young were going into revolt thanks to anti-war protests and the rejection of bourgeois conventions. In a sense you could see this film as a precursor to both the counterculture movement of the late '60s all the way to the snarling darkness of punk rock, whose performers echo the disturbing physicality found in Castel's performance.
The simmering political undercurrents of this film weren't entirely obvious given the subject matter, a sort of domestic horror film with the aesthetic approach of a master painter, but they became a dominant force in most of Bellocchio's later films. None were quite as renowned outside Italy as this incendiary debut, but his streak of worthwhile films is significant with titles including China Is Near (1967), In the Name of the Father (1971), Henry IV (1984), the infamous X-rated art house offering Devil in the Flesh (1986), the little-seen but striking The Sabbath, and more recently, the controversial euthanasia drama Dormant Beauty (2012).
Bellocchio also belonged to the relatively new phenomenon of film students breaking into the industry, having completed one short film, La colpa e la pena (1961), and the more substantial almost-feature Ginepro fatto uomo (1962). However, no one could have anticipated the impact of his first bona fide feature, which drew the scorn of established filmmakers upon its festival screenings but won the Silver Sail award at the Locarno International Film Festival, followed by a Silver Ribbon for its screenplay from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists.
Strangely lacking in awards consideration but an undeniable primary source of the film's power is Castel, who was born in Colombia as Ulv Quarzéll. Fortunately producers quickly took note, and he has remained steadily acting ever since with a variety of roles including Damiano Damiani's political spaghetti western A Bullet for the General (1966), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), Claude Chabrol's Nada (1974), Wim Wenders' The American Friend (1977), and Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep (1996). Like Bellocchio, Castel had radical leftist political leanings which strongly influenced his role choices, a tactic common among European actors at the time (perhaps most famously with Gian Maria Volonté).
Of course, perhaps the most famous name associated with this film is one behind the camera: composer Ennio Morricone, whose sparing but effective dashes of experimental music are woven into the classical selections chosen by Bellocchio. Though still at the beginning of his career, he was already turning out numerous scores each year after the previous year's breakthrough with Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution. To give an idea of his versatility, the same year he worked on this film, his twelve other credits ranged from the organ-fueled gothic reverie of Nightmare Castle to the soaring operatic western For a Few Dollars More. That he managed to find the perfect musical voice for such an orthodox, disturbing film is a testament to both his mastery of his craft and his even more astonishing ability to repeat this feat hundreds of times throughout his career.
By Nathaniel Thompson