A tagline for the play and subsequent film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County reads “misery loves family”. The theme of dysfunctional families is not foreign to cinema – there have been some truly memorable instances of troubled families in cinema – some of them hilarious, some of them depressingly sad. I am not quite sure where we can pinpoint the first example of a film centered around a dysfunctional family, but a very early example is Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (Italian: I pugni in tasca), a film so haunting, yet brilliant beyond belief.
Fists in the Pocket is about a seemingly normal Italian family. Four siblings live with their blind mother (Liliana Gerace), and the absence of a father has forced Augusto (Marino Masé), the oldest sibling, to take on the patriarchal position. He is also the only one of the siblings that aren’t epileptic. He is a stern and logical man who also wants to escape the country life and move to the city, where he can marry his intended and live a happy life. However, his siblings and mother hinder him in some way, and only through being rid of them can he truly be free. The center of the film focuses on Alessandro (Lou Castel), the middle-child who picks up on Augusto’s disillusionment with his life, and offers to rid Augusto of his family, so he may be free – which includes Alessandro sacrificing himself, just so that his brother can potentially have a better life. Of course, this isn’t as simple as it seems, as Alessandro undergoes several attempts to kill his family, and very soon realizes that maybe he too would be better off without the hindrances of his family.
I found Fists in the Pocket to be one of the most haunting films I have ever seen. I went in almost completely blind to this film – I knew of its existence and the basic story, but absolutely nothing else. I wasn’t sure of the tone of the film, or the genre – would it be a comedy, a thriller or a horror? There is some value in not knowing much about a film such as Fists in the Pocket, if only for the mere fact that part of what makes this film so bizarre is that we never know where it is going to lead – it is filled with some truly nasty surprises, and every twist and turn that film undergoes is better than the last. By the time this film ends with a truly thrilling climax and an ending that left me absolutely speechless, you know you have seen something truly extraordinary. Fists in the Pocket is a film that I am so glad I avoided reading too much about, because the best aspect of watching this for the first time was to become fully engrossed in the story, and going on this warped journey into a truly dysfunctional family, where anything can (and will) happen.
Fists in the Pocket has some of the most astonishing performances I have ever seen, particularly from Lou Castel. Playing the highly sinister anti-hero Alessandro, Castel is as terrifying as he is endearing. This film tracks his character’s evolution from a timid country mouse to someone desperate for the bright lights and glamor of the city. His character is so oddball and bizarre, and his motivations are never clear – Alessandro is a character that we don’t understand, but yet we are able to connect with him on some level, because despite being a murderous fiend, he is also a loyal and dedicated family man who wants the best for his older brother, and in effect for himself as well. His character’s growth and change in personality throughout this film are actually more interesting than the central story itself, and while the murderous rampage may frame the film as a whole and make it as odd as it is, what truly keeps you captivated is how incredible Castel is in the film. In a film that has a strong ensemble, Castel rises above each of his co-stars to create one of the most hauntingly deranged performances I have ever seen, and the fact that his performance isn’t seen as one of the greatest of all time is an injustice to his utterly astounding work that he does here. When you also consider that it is Castel’s film debut (after an uncredited performance in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard), it is just truly impressive.
Despite Castel’s impressive performance, Fists in the Pocket is a true ensemble film, and like any great ensemble film, the cast is only as strong as its weakest link – and luckily, everyone is pretty much perfect in their roles. Marino Masé establishes himself as a commanding presence early on in the film, and continues to play this hardened, strict young man trying to fit into a society he desperately wants to be a part of with such ease, it is quite remarkable. Paola Pitagora is simply exquisite as the only female sibling, playing Giulia as a fiercely intelligent but also somewhat lost individual. While he may say very little, Pier Luigi Troglio makes a great impact as the youngest and most sickly of the siblings, and his final scene is so heartbreaking. The cast is held together by Liliana Gerace’s wickedly comical but deeply tragic matriarch, and when she meets her end, it is difficult to not feel great pity at her loss, if not only for the fact that her character was fascinating. The ensemble works wonderfully, and while there are forays where other actors enter into the film, they are inconsequential to the central quintet that makes Fists in the Pocket one of the oddest ensembles ever put on film.
Marco Bellocchio is an utter genius because serving as both writer and director of Fists in the Pocket saw him navigating the gray area between the page and the camera with such eloquence and ease. He is a master at setting the scene without feeling the need to over-explain. He clearly subscribed to the school of showing rather than telling. He wrote a truly extraordinary story here, with such a twisted core, and he managed to bring it to film with such seamless ease, it creates such a tangible atmosphere for the film. He sets the tone early on, and he uses a certain playful bleakness to mould the emotional resonance of this film – humor, sadness, and rage all play parts in this film, both in terms of what the characters feel, as well as the audience, who become entirely embroiled in the bitterly dark and deeply disturbing events that occur in this film. I am surprised that Bellocchio hasn’t received the status of a true cinematic legend because if Fists in the Pocket has anything to say about it, the man is a cinematic genius. The manner in which his films have such a clear and concise narrative ease to them is simply extraordinary – the constant shift from a family drama to a social horror is truly confounding and highly unique.
Not only does Bellocchio show himself a master of setting the tone, he also manages to insert themes into his film that may not appear very overt at the beginning, but as the story unfolds, you find yourself noticing small pieces of foreshadowing that existed previously. Combined with his tendency to reveal the core of the story gradually, Fists in the Pocket sees Bellocchio making some scathing commentaries on society as a whole. The most obvious example is his look at family. There is a scene early on in this film where the five main characters gather for dinner. There is absolutely no explanation offered to us regarding who these characters are, but in the course of that short scene, we learn more about the characters than we could if it was elaborately spelled out for us. Bellocchio never tells the audience exactly what he is trying to say, but we learn about this family through their interactions with each other, and how their behavior has an effect on those around them. This is due to the strong interpretation of the story by a cast of talented actors.
The other main theme that is far more subtle is the idea of the urban impinging on the rural. This film came out in 1965 when the Cold War was in full swing, and Europe was far more privy to other cultures than ever before. It was impossible for a young person to remain in blissful ignorance about what is going on around them – and the idea of the urban is reflected in the character of Augusto, who represents a cosmopolitan lifestyle, governed by trendy dancing and hip parties. This is contrasted with the character of Alessandro, who represents the rural, but not at a Luddite who fears progress and technology, but as someone who wants to live a modern life, but doesn’t quite know how.
For Alessandro, life isn’t meant to be filled with taking his blind mother to the cemetery, or feeding his rabbits – it is supposed to be about being young and keeping up with the future – he is just not as successful as his brother, and his attempts to be like his brother – going to the same parties, sleeping with the same prostitutes, even offering to take on the same responsibilities that his brother has, shows the two themes becoming one – the rural striving to be like the urban, and the tensions that exist within a family. Fists in the Pocket is a film about family dynamics, and whereas many dysfunctional family films show characters either outright hating or loving each other, Fists in the Pocket makes things a bit more complicated, showing the rare trait of such extreme admiration, it can lead to horrible actions. I doubt many younger siblings will commit murder simply to impress and win the approval of their older siblings, but the message contained within those actions are very clear, and make Fists in the Pocket such a complex and wonderful film.
Bellocchio’s camera is a powerful tool – he crafts an extraordinarily beautiful film out of a very complex and bleak script. The production design lends itself to something truly beautiful, which makes the very dark undertone of this film that much more terrifying and overly unique. When you consider so many Italian neorealist films (although I have a problem calling Fists in the Pocket a traditionally neorealist film) make use of the beautiful metropolitans of Italy, mainly Rome in all its beauty and secrecy, to set his film in a mountainous village is truly audacious – Fists in the Pocket goes beyond neorealism and rather finds itself approaching the region of the gothic – and the disturbing funeral sequences, and the terrifying final moments, all capture the strange energy of the Gothic being combined with neorealist ideals. All of this is contained in Albert Marrama’s beautiful lensing of this very disturbing film. It is a film that makes careful use of technical construction to tell the story because, without the visuals, Fists in the Pocket wouldn’t have been nearly as effective, because, beneath the truly horrifyingly bleak exterior, there is a hauntingly beautiful film. There is a scene towards the end, where Alessandro is at an urban party, where the camera focuses on a close-up of his anxious face, which continues to linger in my mind. Fists in the Pocket doesn’t only contain one of the most foreboding narratives I have ever seen, it also has some of the most strikingly beautiful moments in cinema history.
I wouldn’t know where to start when looking at dysfunctional family films, but I don’t think I’d be too wrong to consider Fists in the Pocket one of the precursors of a wildly popular narrative sub-genre. I honestly would not be surprised to find out that Xavier Dolan is a fan of this film, because I saw so many moments here that could have easily influenced many of his films, particularly It’s Only the End of the World, a similarly arid dysfunctional family drama about a younger outsider sibling trying to win over his older brother and understand the complexities of his family and what drives them. The social commentary this film makes can be seen in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, another deeply sad film about a family that is plagued by its past and an uncertain future. I might even feel experimental and try and grasp for straws by saying that I could easily see Fists in the Pocket having been an influence on The Shining, where a deranged man tries to kill his family while they are staying in relative solitude in a mountainous, snowy landscape. Of course I have no idea if any of these people say Fists in the Pocket when they were writing their novels or making their films, but I really would not be surprised if I found out that this film served an influence on these or any of the multitudes of works about dysfunctional families that have appeared in the last half-century.
I am still haunted by Fists in the Pocket. Yet, I loved it so much. As soon as I finished watching it, I rewatched it all over again immediately, and a second viewing just confirmed my belief that this is an absolutely brilliant film that makes some incredibly bold statements about society and family dynamics. The performances are very strong, and Lou Castel gives one of the most extraordinary cinematic performances of all time. It may be a very quiet film, but in that calmness, it becomes unbelievably spooky and bleak. This is a film that may alienate many people, but a unique story and a powerful execution make it well worth your time if you desire a strange and compelling character-driven film that is as unconventional as it is scathing, then Fists in the Pocket is certainly worth seeking out. It is a beautiful film and I just simply can’t get some of the moments in this film out of my head, for better or worse.