Marco Bellocchio on How His ‘Kidnapped,’ About a Jewish Boy Abducted by the Church, Is Different From the Film Steven Spielberg Had in Mind

Revered Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio is returning to Cannes with “Kidnapped,” a drama that reconstructs the true tale of Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy who was kidnapped and forcibly raised as a Christian in 19th century Italy.

It’s a story that Steven Spielberg had his eye on, having announced in 2016 that he would make a drama about Mortara for which he began scouting locations in Italy.

Last year, Bellocchio was in Cannes with another kidnapping drama, the limited TV series “Exterior Night,” about the abduction and assassination of former Italian premier Aldo Moro by Red Brigades terrorists. The veteran auteur’s first foray in TV has had the rare distinction of playing well in Italian cinemas — in two installments — before airing on RAI and selling globally. Earlier this month it also scored a slew of statuettes, including best director, at Italy’s David Awards, the country’s top film prizes.

Bellocchio spoke to Variety about how he went about putting this act of violence and its complex consequences on the big screen and why the Vatican should ask for forgiveness.

What drew you to want to reconstruct the story of this kidnapping perpetrated in God’s name?

I was struck by this story after reading a book about Edgardo Mortara written by a rather conservative Catholic. The book traces the journey of the conversion to Catholicism of this child who is kidnapped after starting his religious journey as an Orthodox Jew. It’s a conversion, that is initially forced. But Edgardo does not change his mind after Rome is freed from Papal domain at which point he is free to do as he pleases. Instead, he becomes a priest and then a missionary to the end of his days.

Had you been wanting to make this film for a long time?

Yes. But immediately after having read the book I found out that Steven Spielberg was in prep with this film. A production company had come to Italy to scout locations and do some auditions, so I stopped thinking about it. Then, several years later, while I was in the U.S. promoting “The Traitor” [which was in Cannes in 2019] I asked around and I heard that Spielberg had not gone ahead with the project. So we verified that and went to work. The story is full of elements that stimulated my imagination. It’s like a great 19th century novel. In the film the mother and father characters are very important and equally important is the figure of the Pope who is violent and intolerant but at the same time coherent [with the Catholic beliefs of that time].

Talk to me about the historical research behind this film. Do you think Spielberg would have taken a different approach?

Working with [writer/director] Susanna Nicchiarelli [who directed historical films “Nico, 1988,” “Miss Marx” and “Chiara”] we used several books as sources, but also plenty of documents. Since it’s about an Italy that no longer exists we did lots of digital effects work to reconstruct that world. But we also wanted to give the audience a real sense of what took place. Lots of work was put into the set design and the costumes. We tried to reconstruct the world of the Italian provinces. We were very careful in making sure the types of vernacular Italian that the characters speak were very accurate. The accuracy of the linguistic aspect was crucial to me to make it real. It’s likely that Spielbergs’s project would have been completely different. He would have done it in English. For us, we really wanted to stand up for the fact that this Jewish family was living on Italian soil.

It’s been reported that Spielberg had trouble finding the right boy to play Edgardo Mortara. How did you find Enea Sala who plays him very well as a boy.  

Before I started shooting I was very worried about this aspect. Kids tend to be very phony these days due to the social media bombardment they are subjected to. I knew that we had to find a kid that had a soul. That was able to emote. I was lucky, I made the right choice. And it’s interesting that Enea had never set foot in a Church. Whereas I have always had to come to terms with my Catholic education, he didn’t have that issue. But he obviously tapped into something even deeper that he conveyed on screen with his eyes, with his voice. He’s from Bologna, so he had the right accent. It was a long casting process, but whereas with professional actors you can work on forging the character, with a kid they either work or they don’t. He put a lot of effort into it and it paid off handsomely.

Pope Pius IX, who was personally responsible for Mortara’s kidnapping, was beatified in the year 2000. The Vatican has never asked for forgiveness for this act of violence. What are your thoughts about this?

I remember the disappointment of Mortara’s descendants about the beatification. For a pope it was a big stain [on his consciousness]. Elena Mortara, his grand niece, was flabbergasted that the Church would justify this act. I’ve been told that the reason for the beatification of Pius IX is that the procedure took place under Pope John Paul II, who was a staunch defender of the Catholic faith. But I think, even though his sainthood has been frozen, that given what Pius IX did, his beatification is unbelievable. I know the Mortara family tried to protest, but to no avail. 

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