Solid, stately and — like the collapsing Papal States of the Italian Peninsula in the late 1800s — just a little too tradition-bound for its own good, Marco Bellocchio’s “Kidnapped,” based on a 19th-century case of religious abduction, opens with an eavesdrop. Anna (Aurora Camatti), the Catholic servant to the Jewish Mortara family of Bologna, pauses on the stairs after a tryst and spies her employers, Momolo Mortara (Fausto Russo Alesi) and his wife Marianna (Barbara Ronchi), murmuring a blessing in Hebrew over their newborn baby boy. It is not clear yet why the sight should make her stop in her tracks, but over the course of over two sedate but mostly absorbing hours, the veteran director follows its repercussions with a singleminded, narrow dedication that sits strangely at odds with the film’s immaculately expansive production design.
Six years later, the Mortara family has itself expanded greatly. The boy, Edgardo (Enea Sala), is a middle child among a close-knit band of playful but pious siblings. So it’s a bolt from the blue when, one night, a determined but not unsympathetic official (Bruno Cariello) shows up at their door with orders to remove Edgardo into the custody of the Catholic Church. A report has been made that as a result of a secret baptism performed on him unwittingly, Edgardo, the little Jewish boy who says his prayers in Hebrew every night, is actually a Christian. Momolo and Marianna protest vehemently, but can only secure a 24-hour stay of execution from Holy Inquisitor Felletti (Fabrizio Gifuni), who, as local representative of the Pope in the Papal State, wields almost unlimited power over his Bolognese subjects. The boy is spirited away to Rome, contact with his family is severely curtailed and so begins for him another life adjacent to the Vatican as a catechumen (a person being instructed in Catholicism to prepare for formal baptism), under the agonized heavenward gaze of a particularly grisly statue of the crucified Christ.
The case becomes a cause célèbre and a headache for Pope Pius IX (Paolo Pierobon) and his chief adviser, Cardinal Antonelli (Filippo Timi). But instead of relenting to public pressure, maintained by Momolo and the Jewish community’s constant petitions for Edgardo’s return, the Pope, portrayed here as a proudly reactionary bully in a velvet cape, simply issues his edict: “Non possumus” (“We cannot”). It is not until 1859, when Papal rule in Bologna is overthrown by the Italian Army, that new hope springs in the form of a trial against Felletti. But he is exonerated: When Momolo asks in despair when they can bring Edgardo home, his lawyer replies crisply, “When we take Rome.” By the time that happens, another 10 years have passed and Edgardo (now played with hot-priest-calendar handsomeness by Leonardo Maltese) may have different ideas about where home really is.
The circumstances of Edgardo’s abduction and the early efforts to return him are documented closely and often movingly: Enea Sala, playing him as a child, and Ronchi as his distraught mother are particularly affecting in this regard. But part of the frustration with “Kidnapped” is the literal battle for his soul happens largely offscreen. What really hangs in the balance emotionally are his loyalties as, initially, he tries to covertly maintain his Jewish faith despite now wearing Catholic schoolboy vestments and a cross. Yet aside from a striking and provocative dream sequence which shows little Edgardo removing the nails from the hands and feet of the Christ statue, allowing Jesus to come back to life, the moments that tip the scales of his inner life one way or the other remain unilluminated.
Suffering from a slightly leaden script (co-written by Bellocchio and “Nico 1988” director Susanna Nicchiarelli), and strangely ignoring all but the most cursory sense of outside political context during this extraordinarily turbulent time, “Kidnapped” makes the strongest impression in pure craft terms — the soundtrack, featuring several well-selected classical pieces alongside Fabio Massimo Capogrosso’s score, is especially impeccable. There’s an almost fetishistic attention to small details, such as the little fondue pot of bubbling, blood-red wax that Felletti uses to seal his dire declarations, or the rustling opulence of Sergio Ballo and Daria Calvelli’s superb period-accurate costuming. Whether evoking the candlelit interiors of the Mortara home or the street locations of 1800s Bologna, or using Italy’s grand estates to double for the Vatican (the famous Room of the World Map in the Villa Farnese is a particularly evocative avatar for the Pope’s office), DP Francesco Di Giacomo’s painterly camerawork ensures that the film has a visual richness that it never quite achieves thematically.
As an imposingly classical, almost Dickensian storybook account of a historical injustice visited on a child — one that gives us a tourist pass to a world separated from us not just by the passage of time, but by the willful isolationism of the most hallowed halls of Catholic power — “Kidnapped” has plenty to recommend it. But if we’re meant to see anything beyond that, any current resonances or even any broader socio-political commentary about the time when a Pope could sit amongst murals of the known world and imagine himself a king, non possumus.