Producers: Beppe Caschetto and Simone Gattoni   Director: Marco Bellocchio   Screenplay: Marco Bellocchio, Susanna Nicchiarelli, Edoardo Albinati and Daniela Cesseli   Cast: Enea Sala, Leonardo Maltese, Paolo Pierobon, Fausto Russo Alesi, Barbara Ronchi, Filippo Timi, Fabrizio Gifuni, Samuele Teneggai, Aurora Camatti, Renato Sarti, Corrado Invernizzi, Andrea Gherpelli, Christian Mudu and James Basham    Distributor: Cohen Media Group

Grade: B

The Risorgimento was unquestionably the signal political event of modern Italian history, and the history of that unification of the peninsula was marked by the actions of many notable figures—Mazzini, Cavour, Garibaldi and, of course, Pope Pius IX, who was forced to surrender (in fact if not in theory) his position as temporal ruler of the Papal States, which had existed since the eighth century, and retreat into the Vatican as a “prisoner” of the newly created Kingdom of Italy.  But the process involved many others, like Giuseppe Verdi, whose operas provided anthems of liberation from papal rule, along with a boy called Edgardo Mortara, whose name was well-known in the 1860s and 1870s but faded from memory until the late 1990s, when he received renewed attention, largely as the result of the Vatican’s decision to proceed with the beatification of Pius IX in 2000, the last step preceding a declaration of sainthood. 

Edgardo, born in 1851, shortly after Pius had returned to Rome from exile under the protection of French Emperor Napoleon III, was the sixth of the eight children of Salomone and Marianna Mortara, Jews living in Bologna, then part of the Papal States.  In June, 1858, when he was six, police, acting under orders issued by Pier Gaetano Feletti, the Dominican Inquisitor in Bologna, removed Edgardo from the Mortara family and transported him to Rome.  Feletti had been informed that the child had been secretly baptized as an infant, and under the laws of the Papal States which were predicated on the sacrosanctity of the sacrament, it was incumbent for the church to ensure that he be raised as a Christian.  Edgardo was placed in the House of Catachumens in Rome, where young converts were instructed in the faith.

The attempts of his parents to secure the return of their son became an international cause cèlébre; Feletti was arrested and put on trial in Bologna, one of the regions that had detached itself from papal control in 1860, but despite outside pressure even from his French protectors Pius IX refused to give up the boy, replying to criticism with the simple declaration “Non possumus”—“We cannot.”  His refusal contributed to a groundswell of public opinion against him, and ultimately to the takeover of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy as its capital in 1870.  But the case fell into relative obscurity afterward, until the planned beatification of the pope revived interest in it as evidence of Pius’ unsuitability for sainthood.  More recently it caused renewed furor when a Dominican theologian published a 2018 article offering a justification of Pius’ position, igniting a strident response even from some traditionalists.

Now director Marco Bellocchio (“The Traitor”) and co-writers Susanna Nicchiarelli, Edoardo Albinati and Daniela Cesseli offer a dramatization of the episode, basing their script on Daniele Scalise’s 1996 book “Il Caso Mortara.”  (A more scholarly treatment is found in David Kertzer’s 1997 “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.”)  Bellocchio and his collaborators manage to adhere quite closely to the essential facts, including background details regarding the wider political situation (though some knowledge of Risorgimento history would be useful, since the context is often skimmed over), though the grandiose, operatic approach necessitates dramatic embellishment, including some palpable inventions—most notably a few decidedly hallucinogenic moments.  (When the pope scans editorial cartoons lampooning his growing unpopularity in the aftermath of his conservative turn in 1850, for example, they come to life in animated form in his eyes, and young Edgardo is depicted imagining releasing Jesus from the cross hanging above a chapel altar in the Vatican one night, and watching him walk away.) 

Overall, however, the approach is that of a stately, somewhat stilted historical epic (the measured editing is by Francesca Calvelli and Stefano Mariotti) with a fairly obvious predisposition to side with the Mortara’a parents—Salomone nicknamed Momolo (a suitably high-strung Fausto Russo Alesi) more circumspect and deliberate in challenging the authorities (an attitude shared by Marianna’s uncle Angelo Padovani, played by Andrea Gherpelli, as well as leaders of the Roman Jewish community) than the more volatile Marianna (an impassioned Barbara Ronchi) and, in the later scenes, their eldest son Riccardo (Samuele Teneggai).  Meanwhile Edgardo, played as a six-year old by Enea Sala and as a teenager by Leonardo Maltese, is shown learning to conform to Vatican expectations over his years under papal tutelage. That includes not only the oversight of the cleric in charge of the Catechumens (Renato Sarti, who manages to bring a hint of empathy to the man) but friendly advice offered him in the early days by his classmate Elia (charming Christian Mudu).  Edgardo must also confront the reality of illness in the person of little Simone (James Basham), a sickly lad in the dormitory all pray for, with a lack of success that confuses the boy, while being torn between the demands of his new life and the desire of his family to reclaim him. 

While Edgardo’s introduction to Catholicism and its effect on him take up a good deal of the film, so do the actions of Pius (Paolo Pierobon), a man depicted as captive to his reverence for tradition and his determination to maintain papal power in the face of what he’s come to see as dangerous radicalism, but also taking a particular interest in his new young charge, toward whom he demonstrates an almost paternal attitude.  It’s a characterization that certainly has a sinister side, especially when the pope proclaims his resistance to change alongside his equally conservative Secretary of State, Cardinal Antonelli (stern Filippo Timi); and the creepy quality of Pierobon’s intensity is unquestionable.  Yet the actor is able to suggest that the pope’s absolute insistence on his prerogatives is understandable, if pragmatically unwise.  And Bellocchio adds a note of fear to the man through a nightmare in which the pope imagines a group of spectral rabbis arriving in his bedroom to circumcise him.

No less implacable is Feletti (the unflappable Fabrizio Gifuni), who even after his arrest is reluctant to identify his informant in the case, who turns out to be Anna Morisi (Aurora Camatti), the erstwhile maid to the Mortaras who claims to have baptized Edgardo when he was an infant and, she thought, near death.  Camatti conveys the nervousness of her contested testimony in Feletti’s trial before the gruff Judge Carboni (Corrado Invernizzi).

Apart from Pierobon, however, “Kidnapped” depends most on the performances of Sala and Maltese, who must persuade us that both Edgardo’s inclination to conform to his new surroundings and his passion in dealing with his parents on the one hand and the pope on the other are, if not fully understandable, plausible.  That they manage the task is a considerable achievement for both youngsters. 

The production is a handsome one, with production designer Andrea Castorina making excellent use of imposing Italian locations and interiors and costume designers Sergio Ballo and Daria Calvelli fashioning impeccable period dress for the laity and eye-catching papal regalia.  Cinematographer Francesco Di Giaocomo bathes them in a lustrous glow, fashioning images that often have the look of Renaissance canvases. Fabio Massimo Capogrosso’s score adds some bracing, strident notes to the mix. The attention to detail is remarkable, though there are a few slips (to nit-pick, at one point in a service the officiant clearly intones “Domine vobiscum” instead of “Dominus vobiscum”).

“Kidnapped” represents a commendable, if somewhat stolid, attempt by Bellocchio to dramatize an event from his country’s history that seems to reflect attitudes foreign to modern sensibilities but whose underlying themes of authoritarianism, antisemitism and familial unity still resonate today.