China Is Near (1967)
Director: Marco Bellocchio
Cast: Glauco Mauri, Elda Tattoli, Paolo Graziosi
Plot: A pair of working class lovers - a secretary and an accountant, scheme to marry into the rich landed gentry. Their targets are a professor, Vittorio Gordini Malvezzi ,(Glauco Mauri), who is running for municipal office as a Socialist candidate, and his sister Elena, (Elda Tattoli), a great lady who lets every man in town climb on top of her but won't marry because socially they're all beneath her.
Awards: Won FIPRESCI Prize & Special Jury Prize (Venice).
Rating: NC16 for some sexual references and nudity.
Source: Sony Pictures Repertory
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: MILD)
I first saw a Marco Bellocchio film at the Italian Film Festival back in 2010. It was called Vincere (2009), about the story of Benito Mussolini and his secret lover. It was an insightful film, not a great one, but fiercely political. Only his second feature, China Is Near, has that same spirit of political force. Restored in digital format, the multiple award winner at the Venice Film Festival back in 1967, is at best an intellectual romp that straddles across issues of class, politics, sex and religion.
Centering on a wealthy family consisting of an older brother Vittorio (Glauco Mauri), his sister Elena (Elda Tattoli), and younger rebellious brother Camillo (Pierluigi Apra), the film brings these issues to them, subjecting the characters to reveal their deepest desires – of lust, of power, almost always for longevity.
Camillo has Maoist ideals, but Vittorio, a professor by trade is seeking to run for an election on the virtues of moderate Socialism. Elena, unbothered by their political clashes and seeking companionship but refusing to marry anyone below her class, appears to be the ‘patriarch’ of the family.
The performances are generally excellent, but you can’t help feeling that the drama is overdrawn. There is no central character to pin our interest on, but Bellocchio tries his best to develop several dramatic set-pieces – Vittorio trying to make his first political speech, a ticking time bomb in an office, and the darkly humorous climax involving dogs.
China Is Near is beautifully photographed in black-and-white by the great Tonino Delli Colli, whose collaborations with Sergio Leone and Pier Paolo Pasolini are stuff of legend. The film despite being a rather talky piece can also be appreciated for its precise visual composition – the shots are composed and the characters dominate the screen space. One particular sequence when Vittorio makes his way in a car to a small village to deliver his first speech is a fine example of direction, acting, and cinematography dovetailing with each other.
While I didn't enjoy the film as much as I would like to, I'm happy to get acquainted with this rarely seen early work of Bellocchio. He has had a consistent presence in the international film festival circuit for more than forty years, yet he remains one of Italy's underappreciated filmmakers.
Verdict: A rather overdrawn Italian drama with stark humour by the great Bellocchio that fuses everything from Socialist politics, class system, sexual affairs and the Church that it gets heady at times.
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