By Rod Lott.

Given how ahead of its time Fists in the Pocket is, I’m surprised Mario Bellocchio’s first feature isn’t more widely known, in the way that François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Ken Loach’s Kes serve as cinematic shorthand for “troubled youth.”

Then again, Lord, is it ever bleak. To paraphrase its Criterion cousin This Is Spinal Tap, how much more bleak could this 1965 film be? And the answer is none. None more bleak.

Perhaps the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray debut of Fists can widen its profile – a deserving result, even as the Italian-language film seems determined to be actively off-putting. Did I mention it’s bleak?

Simultaneously its protagonist and antagonist, Alessandro (Lou Castel, Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep), is one of four siblings, all of whom still live with their elderly, blind, widowed mother (Liliana Gerace). The eldest of the quartet, Augusto (Marion Masé, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard), financially supports the entire household, because his sister and brothers are prone to epileptic fits. But he’s hardly a saint.

Their existence life is insular and hermetic, broken only by the clockwork outing of Augusto driving them to visit their father’s grave. Having more than his fill of this forced errand and bored past desperation, Alessandro plots to have his family members join dear ol’ Dad one by one, in order to set Augusto free to live a “normal” life.

While (most of) that sounds like the setup for a delicious black comedy à la Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa?, Bellocchio’s film is first and foremost a drama, with a streak of cruelty befitting of its characters, especially Alessandro. A young adult of indiscriminate age, he acts like an utter child: prone to tantrums, neglectful of appearance, sparring with his siblings in spats of his own petulant creation. He is, to be blunt, a selfish, spiteful asshole, possessing a growing rage about to boil, as Fists’ balled title more than hints.

That makes him an auto accident of a lead: commanding your eyes, even when your brain warns you the briefest of glimpses is likely to depress and disturb. Speaking of the ocular, it’s interesting that the matriarch literally cannot see all the dysfunction around her – perhaps a metaphor for the side of every family to which outsiders are blind: how they act and interact in secret under their own roof. Here, that includes touches of incest between Alessandro and his gorgeous sister (Paola Pitagora, Sergio Corbucci’s Death on the Run), which is the least shocking in the tableau of taboos Fists in the Pocket depicts.

A new 4K digital restoration is the highlight of Criterion’s Blu-ray, bringing a crispness to the moody, black-and-white images of Bellocchio and his cinematographer, Alberto Marrama. That neither had made a motion picture before this is startling, given the assuredness of their compositions – as beautiful as the characters inhabiting them are ugly.

One of the more stark scenes finds Alessandro, wrapped in a blanket, stepping out onto the balcony and yelling out into the great wide open; shot from slightly below and directly from the side, with Alessandro squarely facing east of the frame, he looks not unlike the Christ statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Since Alessandro soon grants himself the godlike power of who lives and who dies, one wonders if the resemblance isn’t intended.

It’s a potent moment in a movie full of them, none of which I want to see again.

Rod Lott runs the genre film website A former professional journalist, he has written for Psychotronic Video, Something Weird Video and numerous books.

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