For his last trick, at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, Italian maestro Marco Bellocchio turned the 1978 Red Brigade kidnapping and assassination of Prime Minister Aldo Moro, an unparalleled event in Italian political history, into a riveting five-and-a-half-hour miniseries called Exterior Night. For his newest trick––Kidnapped, which debuted in competition in Cannes––he returns to Italian history, this time to tell the story of Edgardo Mortara, a seven-year-old Jewish boy who was taken from his family in Bologna to be raised Catholic in the actual arms of Pope Pius IX.

“Why?” his family cries in a thousand different ways, powerless to the pawns of the Cardinal that carry Edgardo (Enea Sala) away in the night plainly. Because there’s a rumor he was secretly baptized. There were no witnesses, and the Mortara family hasn’t even been informed who or where this rumor came from. But it doesn’t matter. The high Church authorities must give him a Catholic education, according to their own law. And once Edgardo gets there he immediately realizes he’s not the only one, a king’s court of prepubescent boys sitting at the Pope’s table with him.

There’s nothing foreign about Papal authorities abusing little boys, but where it’s usually degenerate sexual behavior, this is different: non-sexual (at least from what we see), territorial, political––a grab for power where power is waning. It sounds as absurd to the Mortaras in 1854 as it does to us in 2023. So within minutes they start gathering their community to fight back, to bring their son home, their goal to shed light on the event and eventually raise enough international controversy over the inhumanity of it all.

The story takes place during a fascinating time in the evolution of Italy’s religious and political spheres, from 1854 to the 1870s, during which the Italian government took the Papal States back from the Church, removed its political power, and unified the country into the Italy we know today. Pius IX (here played by Paolo Pierobon) was also the last Pope to have political rule as head of the Catholic Church, and it shows in Bellocchio’s rendering, pulsing waves of insecurity and insignificance radiating off Pius. 

With crisis in tow, the Pope––like many Christian leaders before and after––dove head first into an antisemitic operation, using what little (albeit questionable) authority he still had over the Jewish people of Italy. One of the few gripping scenes comes at his feet, where, in the throes of the Church’s dwindling power, he makes people bow before him, reminds those bowing that he is more or less God on Earth, and has his feet kissed desperately. It’s blood-curdling, a perfect encapsulation of all church history in swift measure. And it works in that room, but that’s not saying much.

Despite the cool, screeching, horror-like score and some memorable moments, Kidnapped plays more like a heavy sigh than an absorbing adaptation of history. Its tense, shadowed cinematography has moments, but ultimately feels incomplete, not fully considered. Landscape shots of Rome and surrounding areas at night, of which there are many, are kitschy and unpalatably colored––like darker Thomas Kinkades, images that belong in a children’s fantasy book or a Disney princess live-action remake. 

Edgardo’s eventual, intense devotion to his Christian faith––and whether it’s real or contrived for escape––becomes Kidnapped’s most interesting question, but unfortunately Edgardo doesn’t say, emote, or do much. So we never get a deeper sense of what’s going on inside him, and we’re left to keep guessing with no intel for estimation, a vapid exercise in characterization that grows grating as he shows no signs of development with age. If that’s truly how he was and Bellocchio wanted to stick to it, then it’s on him to find an intriguing way to direct that. But people doing nothing onscreen for an entire film is simply inert. 

Historically speaking, Edgardo’s kidnapping is something anyone can read about, but now that it’s on film, more people will likely know it than before. More people could see and understand how pervasive antisemitism has been in the Catholic Church (and Protestant Churches, for that matter) over the past 2,000 years. That’s one of the beauties of cinema. Just think: what histories do we know from film? Yet it’s hard to imagine Kidnapped ever finding much of an audience. 

Kidnapped premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: C

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