There’s no socio-political issue of the 2000s that made me want to lay down in front of a steam-roller more than the debacle surrounding the passing of Terry Schiavo–the Tampa, Florida woman who became the center of a national debate in 2005 when her husband decided to remove her from life support after fifteen years of living in a persistent vegetative state. My annoyance wasn’t influenced by the incident itself but because I, quite literally, could not get away from the Terry Schiavo debate. I lived in Tallahassee, the capital city of Florida, where politicians and talking heads were holding rallies on a daily basis. I took a family vacation to Washington D.C. right when the crisis hit its apex. Our family pictures in front of the White House are lousy with Terry Schiavo protestors (pro and con) shouting into the void of a half mile of Presidential front lawn. On the way home from the same trip, we had a thirteen hour delay in the Hartsfield-Jackson International airport in Atlanta, where I had a fitful night’s sleep on a concourse bench between two televisions, one tuned to MSNBC and the other to FOX News, both with nonstop Terry Schiavo “coverage”. According to the climate in America in the spring of 2005, there were no complexities to euthanasia. For or against. No in between. Monster or saint. Dormant Beauty, from Italian director Marco Bellocchio, is about a similar incident that occurred in Italy in 2009 and the people on the periphery. Dormant Beauty transported me back to that bench in the Atlanta airport; except, this time, no one’s yelling whose right and whose wrong. Instead, Bellochio is merely asking that you examine the gray in a black and white debate.
During the Terry Schiavo case in the United States, a similar thing was happening to a woman in Italy named Eluana Englaro, injured in a car accident and in a coma for seventeen years. In 2009, amid political objections and nationwide protests, Eluana was removed from life support. Dormant Beauty tells the fictional, interwoven stories of several people during the final six days of Eluana’s life. Uliana Beffardi (Toni Servillo, The Great Beauty) is a Senator who is being forced to vote against his conscience. His daughter Maria (Alba Rohrwacher) is a right-to-life protestor who falls in love with a young euthanasia activist. Divina Madre (Isabelle Huppert), an Italian actress whose daughter is on a ventilator, watches Eluana’s fate in the news as she ponders the fate of her own child. These people, as well as several others, are forced to consider the complications of life and love as Eluana Englaro (a looming presence in the film, despite never making an appearance) lives her final days.
Both Toni Servillo and Isabelle Huppert are revelatory in their roles. Servillo’s performance is entirely internal, creating moments of insight alone in an office or portraying anguish and conflict in scenes of total stillness. Senator Beffardi is a man who has spent years devolving himself into a career politician. But faced with a crisis of conscience, he proves to be a man with fear and worries, knowing his political career is in the balance. And Servillo puts that paradox onscreen in a truly mesmerizing way. Isabelle Huppert is charged with a far different task. Her character is one who is actively suffering, whose pain isn’t forthcoming or buried under years worth of layered, political insincerity. But she’s also facing a paradox: she’s a woman whose hope for her own child will die with Eluana Englaro. Huppert has to portray a woman actively losing hope in hope.
Despite my love for the performances, there is an obstacle I find difficult to overcome in Dormant Beauty, one many other films have grappled with and failed. Using distinct, yet connected vignettes as a narrative device to tell one global story, often leaves me feeling unfulfilled, as is the case in Dormant Beauty. None of the various story lines are dull or misguided. Actually, each one is rather astounding; but together, the whole isn’t entirely satisfying. There’s a bigger story to be told, but the disparate stories in Dormant Beauty are never in a position to tell it.
Despite this, I’m reluctant to say that Dormant Beauty isn’t a successful film. Because what Marco Bellochio (who also wrote the film with Veronica Raimo and Stefano Rulli) is able to accomplish is significant. Bellochio, as well as the actors, give the film’s topic the gravitas it deserves. Euthanasia (or the Right to Life vs Death with Dignity movements, depending on which side you fall on and/or whether you prefer euphemisms) isn’t a topic that can be easily solved during a seven minute segment on CNN. I’m pro-Euthanasia. If someone is suffering and wants to die, who am I to tell them they can’t? But what I enjoyed most about Dormant Beauty is that it isn’t patting me on the back or screaming at me through a bullhorn. Because Marco Bellochio knows he can’t settle the debate, he doesn’t attempt to. Instead, he acknowledges the debates intricacies. And acknowledging the complexities of a divisive issue is the only constructive option. Certainly more constructive than listening to thirteen hours worth of TV assholes screaming at each other while you fight for sleep in an international airport terminal. And for that, I’m grateful.