Alfred Dreyfus and Edgardo Mortara, both born in the 1850s, became targets of anti-Semitic institutions (the French army of the Third Republic) and regimes (the Papal States of Italy). Their fates ignited debates in the era’s mass medium—newspapers—that shaped public opinion and ramped up pressure on political antagonists in France and Italy, and around the world. These scandals still epitomize the global clash between modernizing and reactionary forces—and the persistence of Jewish scapegoating and “othering.”

The veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio, who wrote and directed his first film in 1965, made Kidnapped! The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara (2023) at the age of 83. It opened in the United States in May and will continue to roll out across the country. Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy (a.k.a. J’accuse), based on Robert Harris’s first-rate historical novel about the Dreyfus affair, won three César Awards in 2020 (including best director and adapted screenplay) but has not received an American release, unlike every Polanski film from Knife in the Water (1962) to Venus in Fur (2013). In a post-#MeToo environment, no English-language company will distribute a film by a director who, 46 years ago, pled guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor” (a 13-year-old girl) and then fled the country. Polanski will turn 91 in August.

Bellocchio’s film is a bravura explosion of outrage at the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s snatching of a Jewish six-year-old in 1858 and an imaginative exploration of his coerced evolution from nice Jewish boy to evangelizing priest. Readers of Cynthia Ozick’s “The Story of My Family” (COMMENTARY, March 2024), an intimate poetic flight in prose, already know the outlines of Edgardo’s plight. Bellocchi delivers his epic yet incisive version with heart-stopping immediacy and clarity. He generally follows the factual narrative but inventively heightens and condenses the action to depict the effects of religious extremism and brainwashing.

His opening title sets the place and time—the Mortara family’s home city, Bologna, March 1852—and provides a crucial piece of information: “Bologna belonged to the Papal States and Pius IX was the Pope-King.” Under the spiritual and temporal leadership of this pontiff, any well-intentioned person, Catholic or not, could baptize a Jew by spritzing him or her with water, making the sign of the cross, and reciting the tripartite formula: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” In the introductory sequence, maidservant Anna Morisi spies on Solomone “Momolo” Mortara and his wife, Marianna, as they pray in Hebrew over 6-month-old Edgardo’s cradle for his recovery from an unnamed illness. Then the movie leaps ahead six years, when officers of the papal military police identify Edgardo as an unknowing Catholic and dispatch him to Rome. The maid, it turns out, had baptized the infant out of fear that his soul would land in Limbo—and according to the Holy Inquisitor, an irrefutable power in the Papal States, a Catholic soul is required to come of age in a Catholic environment. Repeatedly in the film, the Mortaras are told that they can get Edgardo back only if they convert, which they would never do.

Bellocchio brilliantly interweaves Momolo and Marianna’s dogged pursuit of their son’s release with Edgardo’s struggle to stay true to Judaism during his forced reeducation. The pleas of Momolo and his kith and kin cannot move the Holy Inquisitor, Friar Pier Gaetano Feletti. The Papal States run on dogma—even an imposed conversion can’t be reversed or ignored. Meanwhile Edgardo, in a state of prolonged trauma, journeys from Bologna to Rome in the care of two pious gentlewomen who drape a talisman around his neck—a cross, or, as he calls it, “a good-luck charm.” Ushering Edgardo into his first cathedral, they pause at a heroic painting of John baptizing Jesus—a Jew becoming a Christian, just like him. Edgardo ends up with roughly a dozen fellow victims in the Vatican’s House of Catechumens, which replaces the boys’ Judaism with Christianity.

Bellocchio energizes Edgardo’s saga with bold tragicomic strokes. Pope Pius IX emerges as a major character, a bulging pink embodiment of sadomasochistic vanity. As he fixates on a political cartoon that portrays him as a gleeful and nimble kidnapper with a babe in arms and sinister henchmen, the pen-and-ink figures spring to life in an impudent animated riff. Pius IX (who was beatified in 2000) tries to project confidence, but in a cartoon-inspired nightmare, the Jews retaliate for his endorsement of an “emergency baptism”—and give the pope an SOS circumcision.

Bellocchio’s prodigious talent takes us inside his characters while the action plays out on a grand scale. He and his superb cast (Enea Sala as young Edgardo, Fausto Russo Alesi as Momolo, Barbara Ronchi as Marianna) bridge the contradictory narratives that filled Jewish and Catholic journals in 1859, characterizing Edgardo either as a bereft boychik or a spiritual savant instantly embodying Christian grace. Early on, when Momolo whisks his son away from the carabinieri and dangles him from an upstairs window as friends promise to catch him, Bellocchio rivets our attention to Edgardo’s terror. From that moment forward, we key in to the boy’s roiling depths and vulnerability. Never having roamed beyond Bologna’s Jewish quarter, he drinks in the eerie sights during a river journey to Rome, including a riverside Catholic funeral cortege. Its melancholy beauty jibes with his own mood and haunts him. At the House of Catechumens, he hides his father’s mezuzah under his pillow and recites the Sh’ma morning and night, trying to escape the clerical staff’s round-the-clock monitoring and emotional manipulations.

After months of separation, Momolo and Marianna travel from Bologna to Rome to visit their child. In an excruciating father-and-son reunion, the rector stands inches behind Edgardo, who maintains a distance from his parent and speaks without spontaneity or affection, though tremulous feelings ripple across his face at the mention of his mother. Momolo accepts Edgardo’s rote responses—this loving father won’t upset his son, even if it would strengthen his argument that the boy needs to come home. Momolo’s piercing smile—a blend of paternal warmth and pathos—expresses his hidden agony, just as his stooped, cautious bearing conveys the engrained resignation of Jewish men living in an oppressive Catholic state. Later, Marianna betrays no internal censor or restraint. Before the boy sees her, the rector cunningly warns Edgardo, “God knows all, even our thoughts.” The ravaged maternal ardor of Marianna breaks through to him anyway. For a cathartic minute or two, he gets to be his mother’s child—before his world splits apart again.

Edgardo’s visceral need for stability generates a startling fantasy of reconciliation. He clambers up the school’s elevated life-size crucifix, with its wounded, contorted limbs and torso and thorned, bloody brow, and removes the huge nails from Jesus’s hands and feet. In his dream, he liberates the Christian savior. Wide-awake, he settles into the papal household as his substitute family.

The final reel becomes a series of epiphanies delivered con brio. Now a 17-year-old seminarian (played at fever pitch by Leonardo Maltese), Edgardo can’t tamp down the love-hate that erupts when he “accidentally” knocks Pius IX off his feet during a processional. It’s a physical Freudian slip. (Edgardo’s punishment: using his tongue to draw three crosses on the dusty church floor.) After the Kingdom of Italy’s troops pour through the Papal States’ Roman walls during the unification of 1870, Edgardo spurns the plea of his soldier-brother to reunite with his birth family. In his final test of faith, he does go to his mother’s deathbed, but with a vial of holy water up his sleeve.

Bellocchio is not Jewish—he was raised Catholic. He made his name with profound black dramedies about twisted or broken families and corrupt societies (Fists in the Pocket, 1965; China Is Near, 1967; Leap into the Void, 1980). Then he reignited his career with Good Morning, Night (2003), a stunning movie about the kidnapping and murder of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro; Vincere (2009), a harrowing tale of Mussolini’s unacknowledged first wife; and The Traitor (2019), a trenchant drama of the Sicilian mob’s first “judicial collaborator.” Bellocchio’s script for Kidnapped! (co-written with Susanne Nicchiarelli) refracts his lifelong preoccupations with warped ideals, groupthink, psychological confusion, and conscience through Mortara’s history. It’s a personal and artistic triumph.

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When Kidnapped! drew welcoming crowds in Italy, Vatican City’s Osservatore Romano editorialized that the abduction would be impossible today because the Second Vatican Council “helped to change the perspective” that “every baptized child had to be educated Catholic, even against the will of the parents.” Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy received a five-minute standing ovation and the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2019.  In a press-kit interview with the French intellectual Pascal Bruckner, Polanski compared his status as a fugitive sex offender to the innocent Dreyfus confronting a judicial process rigged against him. The film transcended this egregious piece of special pleading to become a critical and popular success in France.

Polanski’s greatest gifts—his surgical intelligence, his mastery of craft, his feel for ambience, and his knack for visualizing classic stories from unusual angles—irradiate this tense, immersive movie about the persecution of Dreyfus (Louis Garrel), set mostly between his conviction in 1894 and his pardon in 1899. As in Harris’s novel (he and Polanski co-wrote the script), the main character is Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin). A career officer, Picquart takes command of the army’s intelligence division (“the Statistical Section”), uncovers the real culprit selling information to the Germans, and unravels the conspiracy to frame Dreyfus. What begins as a police procedural of unusual vibrancy and sophistication, featuring cutting-edge (and dubious) detection and forensics circa 1896, turns into a tough-minded chronicle of an iconoclastic crusade. The Pope said “non possumus” (“we cannot”) when asked to return Mortara to his family; the army chiefs say “res judicata” (“a matter already judged”) when asked to retry Dreyfus. The stubborn anti-Semitism that made Dreyfus a fall guy threatens to keep him isolated on Devil’s Island, often in leg irons, in a 13-by-13-foot hut under 24-hour surveillance.

Polanski commences his film with a spellbinding fanfare: Dreyfus’s official “degradation” in the frigid courtyard of the École Militaire on January 5, 1895. The sights and sounds of his punisher breaking Dreyfus’s sword in two and ripping off his insignia oscillate across the square. When it’s over, Dreyfus barks out his innocence to troops massed in formation and to jeering, Jew-baiting crowds.

This film captures the extremes of the Belle Époque: the august army-command offices and the squalid Statistical Section building, Renoir-esque picnics and racy saloons, grand museums, glittering salons and dusky, smoke-filled bistros. Every glancing relationship feels real, including Picquart’s cosmopolitan friendships and clear-eyed affair with a sophisticated married woman (played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner). When figures such as Émile Zola and Georges Clemenceau take their place as valiant Dreyfusards, they fit into the atmosphere rather than leap out as guest celebrities.

Polanski counterpoints France’s rigid, incompetent military with its porous, eclectic society, open to atavistic hatreds as well as avant-garde thinking. In Dujardin’s virile, hyper-alert performance, Picquart is a casual anti-Semite overtaken by his sense of justice and decency. When he meets with Garrel’s intense, disciplined Dreyfus after the Jew’s exoneration, there is no hint of sentimentality or false uplift. Unexpectedly at odds over Dreyfus’s request for a promotion, they do each other the honor of speaking honestly and directly.

Bellocchio learned about the evils of Fascism from his schoolteacher mother and lawyer father. He set out to make Kidnapped! after reading a Catholic defense of Edgardo’s abduction in 2017. Polanski, whose mother died in Auschwitz and father survived Mauthausen, prodded Harris to write his novel about the Dreyfus affair over a dozen years ago. In 1973, Kurt Vonnegut told Playboy that he had “‘the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine’ theory of the arts”—that is, artists respond to poisons in the air before they infect the general public. Bellocchio and Polanski offer chilling evidence of Vonnegut’s belief.

Photo: Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP

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