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The Forgotten: Marco Bellocchio's "China is Near" (1967)

A socialist candidate for municipal office contends with extremist or scandalous relatives, his secretary-mistress, and the Italian public.
Appearing at New York's Film Forum from the 20th - 26th of March, Marco Bellocchio's newly restored political-sexual satire plays something like Robert Altman at his most biting, but the flavor is distinctly Italian, the milieu that of local politics in a small city. Glauco Mori plays an aspiring socialist candidate for municipal office, a man who has tried every center-left party on the map, and even dabbled with communism; a man with no convictions but a vague itch for power, perhaps because he's so ineffectual in his own life.
He's having an affair with his secretary, and his campaign manager is sleeping with his sister, and both lovers are conniving to force a lucrative marriage. Meanwhile, his brother is gravitating towards minor acts of terrorism...
Nobody is admirable in Bellocchio's supremely cynical vision: there are no noble deeds to be done in politics, and the public's contempt for their would-be leaders is even greater than the politicians' evident contempt for the masses. Mori's first attempt at public speaking ends with a riot after he slaps a boy who ran off with a page of his speech, and his precious new car is violently dismantled by the angry mob. While the movie lacks the grotesque, Grand Guignol surrealism of Lindsay Anderson's Britannia Hospital, it has the same savage, a-plague-on-all-your-houses attitude.
Where Bellocchio differs from Altman, Anderson, and the rest of the A's is his specifically Italian combination of bawdiness and visual grace. Shot by the great Tonino Delli Colli and scored by Ennio Morricone, the film has a stark, chalky quality and moves with a jollying, staccato rhythm. A small yapping dog may, as in certain seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, represent lust: certainly, there's a lot of that particular deadly sin about. The story cheerfully suggests rape, adultery and abortion, but nobody gets hurt. Even a mock-assassination attempt, in which a cat is thrown at a political speaker and then two Alsatian hounds are released to go after the feline now sticking to the back of his neck, is bloodless and seems to get resolved without serious injury. But there's no mistaking the malice behind it, both on the part of the assailants and the filmmaker.
The anti-clerical stuff may raise eyebrows too, and must have been startling at the time. When one character wishes to stop an acquaintance getting an illegal abortion, he brings a priest into the surgery to help him break up the proceedings. The doctor, caught about-to-be-red-handed, immediately confesses to the priest, with breathtaking cynicism, not to expiate his guilt but to use the seal of the confessional to make sure the guy can't rat on him. What larks!
So the film is quite an odd experience, on the one hand so of-its-time that it may seem a period piece, yet still able to startle with its brazen irreverence.
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The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
Pauline Kael was over-the-moon about it when it premiered in the U.S. but she couldn’t get many others to climb aboard for the ride.
I’m surprised she didn’t think it another “come as the sick soul of Europe party.” But given her love of stuff like Shampoo, I can see why she might dig it. The personal and the political, both equally rotten.

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