Sometime in the late 1960s, Camillo Bellocchio confided in his twin brother, Marco, that he was unhappy with the way his life was going. Marco, already a well-known filmmaker and a committed leftist, counseled Camillo, who was managing a gym, to throw himself into radical politics and seek solace in the “historical optimism” of the revolutionary proletariat. Camillo doubted that his anguish could be healed through political engagement. “Marx can wait,” he told his brother. Not long after, Camillo died by suicide. He was 29.
A fictionalized version of that conversation occurs in Marco Bellocchio’s 1982 film “The Eyes, the Mouth.” The relevant clip, along with other fragments from the director’s oeuvre, is inserted into his new documentary, “Marx Can Wait,” a wrenching and tender film that will be essential viewing for Bellocchio fans. But even for those who aren’t familiar with the personal and national history he has explored in more than 20 films, “Marx Can Wait” can stand on its own. It’s a complicated and painful story, humanely and sensitively told.
Marco and Camillo were the youngest of eight children born into a bourgeois family in the small Northern Italian city of Piacenza. In 2016, Marco, one of five surviving siblings, gathered with his brothers and sisters and their spouses and children for a reunion in their hometown. Filmed over several years, “Marx Can Wait” starts with toasts and table-talk, and then gravitates toward the black hole of Camillo’s death, in the process illuminating the legacy of a difficult and fascinating family.
That family was Bellocchio’s first great subject. His debut film, “Fists in the Pocket” (1965), shot in Piacenza, turns domestic dysfunction, generational frustration and sibling resentment into the stuff of gothic, scabrous comedy. Awarded a prize at the Locarno Film Festival, “Fists” and the ferocious political satire “China is Near” (1967) established Bellocchio, still in his 20s, as an enfant terrible in Italian cinema.
The IFC Center in Manhattan is showing those movies alongside “Marx Can Wait,” bringing the young man of the ’60s into poignant dialogue with his older self. Bellocchio’s career, between then and now, can be seen partly as a chronicle of disillusionment, as revolutionary ardor gives way to irony, compromise and defeat. His many films about Italian public figures and institutions — Mussolini; the violent, far-left Red Brigades; the Roman Catholic Church; and the Mafia — are also family stories, attentive to intimate nuances of power and emotion.
The reverse is also true. “Marx Can Wait” is entirely absorbed in the faces, voices and personalities of Bellocchio’s brothers and sisters, present and absent, but it also feels, by implication or osmosis, to be telling the story of Italy in the past half century. Camillo’s fate is linked to the expectation that a young man of his background would pursue stability and worldly success — family and career — or else rebel in a dramatic and consequential way. He seems never to have found a path, and to have despaired of finding one.
But suicide isn’t a mystery that can be solved, perhaps least of all by those closest to its victim. Marco and his brothers and sisters dwell on details and speculate about causes, including the influence of a mentally ill older brother, Paolo, who shared a room with Camillo when they were children, and the volatile presence of their devout, emotionally demanding mother. Repressed memories bubble up, secrets are revealed, but nothing is resolved. Freud can wait, too.
Old photographs and film clips do their usual documentary work, but the power of “Marx Can Wait” comes from the faces and the voices of people, now in their 80s, trying at once to evoke and to make sense of their younger selves. Marco’s brother Piergiorgio and his sister Letizia, who is deaf, are especially vital, spiky characters.
That Faulknerian chestnut about the not-even-pastness of the past has rarely been illustrated with such vivid intimacy. The loss of Camillo is ongoing, wrapped around the family’s life like a vine, impossible to untangle or prune away. What makes this film tender as well as tragic is how that loss also makes the family blossom before our eyes.
Marx Can Wait
Not rated. In Italian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. In theaters.