2016 Film Essays

Capitolo 20: Mani in Alto / Marco Bellocchio’s ‘Fists in the Pocket’


Capitolo 20 is a series on Italian cinema by Vague Visages founder Q.V. Hough. Read the introduction HERE.

For a new wave of filmmaking to transpire, a rejection of accepted norms must first take place. Cinephiles are well versed in such a concept, as most are familiar with the backstories of progressive individuals like Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut and why the directors set forth to change the French film industry of the late 50s. In fact, the core group of personalities that emerged from La Nouvelle Vague had long been working as critics and explicitly knew how to differentiate themselves from the pack. Yet, the early 60s were quite different in Italy, as the beloved neorealist films had transformed into the magical realism of Federico Fellini and modernized tales of everyday hardships (as seen in Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto and I Fidanzati). But for a 20-something northern Italian like Marco Bellocchio, “reality” meant something else. It meant a rejection of the new normal. And for his 1965 feature debut, Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca), the hands were up and the gloves were on.

In Mira Liehm’s Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, she describes the essence of cinematic productions that kicked off the New Italian Cinema movement: “They were boiling with rage against a society that had developed during the past twenty years and against the older generation that had conformed to the rules…” For Bellocchio, however, a precedent didn’t exist when he commenced production in his native Bobbio. In turn, some of the film’s more over-the-top moments accentuate this fact. But, in order to make his point, Bellocchio had to be overtly clear by producing severely unnerving images, complemented by a consistent flow of eyebrow-raising dialogue. Rather than presenting a traditional drama in the neorealist style, he forced the viewer into a more foreign place to examine a new kind of Italian reality, one vastly different than accepted norms of obedience, religion and a feeling that happiness would come through unconditional loyalty to standard practices and traditions.


“Just be quiet and keep an eye out.” A sense of paranoia and claustrophobia fills the opening minutes of Fists in the Pocket, as a woman deciphers a threatening note, only to listen to her boyfriend defend his sister’s intent. The early dialogue hints at the concept of revolution, referencing ideals of sacrifice and preparation. Nearby, within the confines of an Italian villa, a family of three boys and an inquisitive young woman live with their mother who remains oblivious to the disturbing trends of her children’s day to day lives — and for good reason: she’s blind. To make matters worse, three of the children are epileptic, excluding the eldest (Marino Masé as Augusto) who seems primed for a successful business career, at least if his conniving siblings don’t sabotage his plans for happiness and a potential marriage to his aforementioned girlfriend. And with the beautiful Giulia (Paolo Pitagora) serving as the female eyes of the household, Bellocchio reveals the influence she holds over her younger brother while dealing with strong feelings — disturbing feelings — for another sibling, Augusto.

Early on, the family cat eats from Madre’s plate and Alessandro (Lou Castel) flirts with his sister Giulia. Incidentally, Ale enlists a young student to spy on his sunbathing sister, as he wants exact details about her demeanor and physical appearance. In these early scenes, Bellocchio demonstrates the non-verbal communication amongst the siblings that seems more important than a genuine understanding of one another, and the director also highlights the physical space (and physical forms) that, in this household, represent both fun and potential danger. The games, troubling as they may be, are just something to do, yet they’re part of larger narrative at work… one that each sibling fails to recognize due to their egotistical ways.


Radical for its time and still relevant today, Fists in the Pocket raises questions about the relationship between traditional values and progressive thinking based on tangible concepts; ideas rooted in day-to-day realities rather than invisible forces. Time and time again, Bellocchio stages his actors in front of family portraits, as the past continuously looms over the children, reminding of their duties to a helpless mother. They are seemingly connected through a calm lifestyle, but it’s a connection through chaos that progresses Bellocchio’s narrative.

In a pivotal moment, Alessandro fails a driving exam and verbalizes a wish to kill his entire family. As a viewer, the words come across loud and clear, but for the unsympathetic Augusto, the statement represents yet another rant from a dimwitted brother looking for attention. And once Ale does actually secure a license, Giulia refuses a ride… but not because she’s concerned about her brother’s mental health. She refuses because Ale hasn’t proven himself to be anything other than a walking disaster. And now he’s driving. From a visual perspective, Ale represents the obvious central threat of Fists in the Pocket from the open (despite a strange sequence of events involving Giulia), but from a familial standpoint, he’s a predictable individual who will keep his hands to himself. Ale doesn’t stand back, though, and once Giulia learns of his scheming ways and detached attitude towards the daily routines, she inexplicably signs up for the ride, unknowingly becoming an accomplice to a pre-meditated series of crimes.


Back in 1968, Renata Adler pinpointed the foundation of Bellocchio’s vision in The New York Times: “What is strong and original in the picture is that it shows people just poor enough and just handicapped enough to be unfit to join the community of people for whom happiness is at all possible.” Whereas the neorealist films of the previous generation depicted a debilitating reality for poor folks, the characters of Fists in the Pocket are outsiders that could maybe enjoy productive lives, but the inherent dysfunction — the unaddressed dysfunction — suggests that people of their kind will continue to go unnoticed by society and drift away into routine.

From an American perspective in 2016, and after several viewings of Fists in the Pocket, the characters remind me of the Donald Trump narrative currently dominating American politics. I see Trump’s irritable persona in the devious Alessandro, a kid that whimpers until someone pays attention, which only heightens the theatrics (drama for the sake of drama). In Augusto, I see the Republican Party, as the eldest sibling chuckles away at his younger brother’s antics, worrying more about his practical goals (getting laid) than a revealing note about murdering the entire family. Even so, Ale (Trump) keeps gaining momentum. And why? Well, because of Giulia, perhaps the most complex of the group. Like many Trump loyalists of today, she’s attracted to male bravado and remains oblivious to both her potential as a rational human being and the idea of life outside her comfortable bubble. As a result, Giulia fuels Ale’s fire (ego) even more. Together, they believe themselves to be trailblazers, even if they fail to connect with anyone but their own. For the brother and sister pair, it’s cathartic to at least feel something, especially considering the absence of a responsible adult, the absence of a broader perspective and the absence of someone willing to pull them out of the perpetual blaze. The kids don’t stand a chance.


Just as many people of today get left behind because they’re not screaming loud enough or don’t run with an elite crowd, the subjects of Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket suffer for the same reasons, albeit under different economic and societal conditions. And the one person that can actually make a difference (Augusto) has unsurprisingly adapted to his family’s “reality” and finds comfort in small acts, whether it be shooting rats or spending time with his girl. At the end of the day, Alessandro will be Alessandro, and Giulia will be Giulia. That’s what they do. And sadly, the inevitable violence will become just another item tucked away in the local news. Nobody cares. Nobody will remember. Nobody pays attention to those who walk around with their fists clenched tightly in their pockets, unwilling to show their real selves to the world and unwilling to compromise. Or do they?


People often find comfort in hearing the right set of words, as opposed to acknowledging a physical truth standing before them. For Ale, and like so many damaged individuals content with playing a role, there’s a huge difference between actually taking your fists of your pocket to get work done and telling people that you’ve figuratively taken your fists out of your pocket for the sake of appearances.

Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the founder/editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History, and from 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.