Master director triumphs with a true story that Steven Spielberg despaired of, and with good reason

Master director triumphs with a true story that Steven Spielberg

In 2016, a message circulated that made my cinematic mouth water. Steven Spielberg wanted to make a movie with Star Wars actor Oscar Isaac. Tony Kushner (Lincoln) wrote the screenplay. The basis was a real crime, the perpetrators of which led to the top of the Vatican.

Seven years later, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara remains little more than a database corpse. The film was never made because Spielberg was unable to cast the role that was crucial to him. The sadness about this can be buried at the latest now, because a more than worthy replacement for Spielberg was presented at the Cannes Film Festival, which left me angry and enthusiastic.

Kidnapped tells the true story of Edgardo Mortara

The film is called Kidnapped and is directed by the Italian master Marco Bellocchio (Il Traditore – As the key witness against the Cosa Nostra), who caused a sensation in his long career, among other things, through his open criticism of the Catholic Church. He could hardly have chosen a more ideal story for his new film.

The six-year-old Edgardo Mortara was living with his Jewish family in Bologna in 1858 when the papal police knocked on the door one evening. It is said that Edgardo (Enea Sala) was baptized, and the law stipulates that children who have been baptized as Christians may not be brought up by Jews. With all the arbitrariness of the papal authorities, Edgardo is snatched away from his parents, with no evidence or opportunity to defend yourself. Years of fighting for her son ensues, while the Jewish boy is to be religiously re-educated.


The poster for Kidnapped

The Edgardo Mortara case is attracting international attention, governments are exerting pressure. Pope Pius IX (masterfully deranged: Paolo Pierobon) insists on his decision. In young human life he recognizes the defensive barricade of his crumbling power.

The facts of the story fuel enough anger and Bellocchio opens his film with the complete bewilderment of the parents whose child is kidnapped in a cloak and dagger operation. This sense of injustice forms the sensitive fuel of a historical thriller, which would have degenerated into a simple indictment in the hands of a worse director. But Bellocchio does not rest on the indignation of his audience. As clearly as the guilt is distributed at the beginning of the story, the narrative unfolds in an ambiguous manner afterwards, which focuses on three parties: the parents, the Pope and little Edgardo.

Steven Spielberg failed to cast the boy

The most nuanced character that emerges from the film is Edgardo. Steven Spielberg allegedly put his project on hold because he couldn’t find the right boy (source: Collider). Bellocchio obviously didn’t have this problem.

Kidnapped cautiously observes the emotional world of little Edgardo, to whom the image of the crucified Jesus seems just as alien as the Latin language. As great feat of the film shows the ability to capture his inner life, his contradictory feelings in pictures. In this it resembles another must-see true crime film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, in which disparate emotions collided in one character: Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon.


Pope Pius IX

In Kidnapped, surreal interpolations break through the facts, and Edgardo’s attempt to understand and navigate an incomprehensible situation is visualized. For example, he sneaks up to the altar at night and frees Jesus from the nails in his hands and feet. It’s a gesture that can express so many things: longing for rescue, genuine compassion, guilt towards one’s parents, or an instinctive understanding of this symbol.

What sets Kidnapped apart from many other “startling” historical films is the courage to withhold a simple interpretation from us. Ambiguity is the trump card of this film, which will probably at least become worth seeing in the hands of Steven Spielberg. Alternative film history or not: Bellocchio was exactly the right person for the job.

Kidnapped (unfortunately) has not yet been released in German cinemas.