Review: Religion, Politics and Family Clash in Italian Period Drama Kidnapped: The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara

There’s a curious trend in filmdom right now of films about religion or religious figures that aren’t necessarily your typical pandering, faith-based releases. Just a couple of months ago, I saw a pretty solid work called Cabrini, set in the late 1800s, about an Italian immigrant nun who came to New York City and used her entrepreneurial skills to build an “empire of hope” for immigrants, even if it meant going to battle with the mayor and local cardinal to make it happen. And now we have Kidnapped: The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara, an Italian production that opens in 1858 in the Jewish quarter of Bologna. The pope’s soldiers raid the home of the Mortara family, looking for one specific child, 7-year-old Edgardo (Enea Sala), whom they claimed was secretly baptized as a baby by an unnamed party, which by papal law means the boy is Catholic and must be raised and educated under its doctrine.

Determined to reclaim their son and discover the identity of the person who secretly baptized him, if indeed that happened, the boy’s parents (father Salomone, played by Fausto Russo Alesi, and mother Marianna, played by Barbara Ronchi) use every means at their meager disposal to appeal to the church, led by Pope Pio IX (Paolo Pierobon) and his kidnapping inquisitor Pier Gaetano Feletti (Fabrizio Gifuni). Edgardo is hardly the first boy to have been snatched by the church under these twisted rules, and by treating him quite well as he undergoes intense spiritual conversion, they make the boy actually start to believe being a Catholic will keep him from going to hell. His parents are allowed to meet with him occasionally, but it takes a stern appeal from his mother to remind the boy he was raised Jewish, and no amount of brainwashing will change that.

Most of Kidnapped deals with the back and forth between Jewish leaders and the Pope, who was also seen as king in this era and clearly had the edge in such an overwhelmingly Catholic society. While the Mortara family does go to the press to discuss the matter (news of the kidnapping even reaches America), they must also make deeply emotional pleas directly to His Holiness, who is not happy with all of the negative attention this matter has garnered. It isn’t long before this very personal matter becomes a full-fledged political fight and a cornerstone for a revolution against the papal state and church authority.

Director Marco Bellocchio (The Traitor), who co-wrote the screenplay with Susanna Nicchiarelli (based on the novel The Mortara Case by Daniele Scalise), brings a certain dark sadness to what is effectively a family’s painful journey through decades of red tape and the slowly changing times. They have the public’s support and global attention, but the church won’t budge; in the face of diminishing power, this is one of the few things they can control. There’s something a bit dry in the filmmaker’s approach to the material, but with so many moving parts, perhaps that is the best way to handle the storytelling, even if it comes across like we’re watching a history textbook.

The film's final third features a court case in which Feletti is put on trial for the initial abduction, claiming that the baptism never took place, thus rendering the taking of the child unnecessary. But the case is lost, leading to even more protests and more of a call that the practice of unsanctioned baptisms be done away with, and that without the parents’ consent, they should be illegal. Meanwhile, Edgardo is getting older, and a 10-year time jump makes him nearly old enough to make his own decisions about his religious training. Through it all, the Mortara family is brought together even as Edgardo drifts from their influence and religion. 

Kidnapped gives us yet another example of how, throughout history, religion divides as much as it brings people together. The film is well made, shot beautifully, but leaves certain emotional motivations unclear, primarily in the mind of young Edgardo, who is tempted by the pomp and circumstance of Catholicism (not to mention being something of a pet project for the pope), but still has strong feelings about returning to his family. That contradiction doesn’t really play out in the performance of young Sala or Leonardo Maltese, the actor who plays Edgardo as a young adult. Normally, one performance isn’t enough to sink a movie, but if that character is the focal point of the movie, it might do some damage, as it does in this case.

The film is now playing exclusively at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.