Life & Culture

The shameful tale of the Jewish boy kidnapped by the Catholic church

I meet the director of a new film about a six-year-old snatched from his family – after he’d been baptised by the family maid


Wrenched away: Enea Sala as six-year-old Edgardo Mortara in the film Kidnapped

Talk about a shameful piece of history. In 1858, in the Italian city of Bologna, Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy, was taken by the Catholic Church from the bosom of his family, after officials learned that the child was baptised a Christian by the family maid. This began years of struggle for Mortara’s parents, and left them facing the prospect of losing their boy permanently as he became increasingly entrenched in Catholicism.

Chronicled in Daniele Scialise’s Il Caso Mortaro, it was this biased account that first caught the attention of veteran Italian writer-director Marco Bellocchio (2019’s The Traitor), whose new film Kidnapped dramatises these shocking events. “It was totally siding with the Vatican, defending the holy right of the papal site to take this child from the Jewish family because he had been baptised,” explains Bellocchio, when we meet in the white-walled offices of Kidnapped’s UK distributor.

A former student in London, where he studied at Slade School of Fine Art, the 84-year-old director understands more English than he speaks, today sitting with a translator as he fine-tunes his thoughts on this complex subject. “Even if you get baptised by a layperson – and in a hidden way – that trumps everything,” he continues. “So it was [seen] not only the right but the duty of the Pope to take him out of his family and educate him in the Catholic faith, because, by virtue of being baptised, he had become a Catholic.”

Despite being raised in the Catholic faith in Piacenza, near Milan, Bellocchio “immediately sided with the family upon reading this book”, disagreeing with the conservative author. “Among the points presented… there was the ‘proof’ that the child was really Christian because he had chosen to remain within the church, instead of thinking that it was because he was so young and he was taken away and he was indoctrinated. [The author felt] that the Holy Spirit had possessed him and made him see the truth.”

At the time, the Catholic Church was led by Pope Pius IX – who famously reacted to the Mortara incident with the Latin religious phrase “non possumus” – which translates as “we cannot”. In other words, it was impossible to retract this Catholic baptism of a Jewish boy. Or as Bellocchio puts it: “Even if I could embrace it, I cannot.” The director even considered using non possumus as the title for the film. “But the distributors said the public wouldn’t understand the Latin,” he sighs.

I wonder if Bellocchio felt it was particularly significant that the Mortara family was Jewish? He sidesteps the question, instead explaining that his colleagues on the film were intent on getting everything as accurate as possible. “None of the cinematic team was Jewish but obviously they underwent a lot of research. They talked to Jewish authorities. They learned specifically all the prayers, but as far as the model of the family… it transcends the idea of being Catholic or Jewish… it is a family.”

Bellocchio’s portrait of the Mortara family – the parents are played by Fausto Russo Alesi and Barbara Ronchi – is warm and tender. Indeed, he “fashioned” this portrait with autobiographical touches. “I come from eight brothers and sisters. And what I really identified with was the love of the father and the love of the mother for the children.” The son of a lawyer, Bellocchio’s bourgeois upbringing could hardly be more different than the experiences of the Mortaras. “The violence that this family underwent was because of faith principles.”

Does he feel it’s a story that reflects on antisemitism? “The story takes place in a very, very specific timeline as far as the history of Italy is concerned,” explains Bellocchio, answering carefully. “So historically, we must understand that at that point, and up to that point, Jewish people were kept in ghettos in cities that were segregated. And they were not just was deemed as a fact that they had committed deicide. So they actually killed the Christ. And so it was in canonical law that this was their sin. And so when we talk about antisemitism, it was a different type of antisemitism. It was accepted.”

As he points out, though, the mid-19th Century were “the years of the making of Italy”, a time of unification when liberal thought became more prevalent and ghettos were abolished. “Jewish people up to that point were persecuted in so much that they were isolated. Obviously, the persecution has nothing to do with the horrors that we saw during Nazi and fascist times, but if you want to apply the words in a very specific way, yes, they were persecuted because they were kept isolated. And also they were in a very, very practical way, deemed to be guilty of deicide.”

Intriguingly, Bellocchio is not the first the director to attempt to tell the Mortara story. Several years ago, Steven Spielberg was looking to adapt David I. Kertzer’s book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, with British actor Mark Rylance attached. Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, a regular screenwriter for Spielberg, was set to write the script and locations were even scouted in Italy, but the project stalled. ‘He stopped the film because he didn’t find the boy,’ says Bellocchio.

That was a fate, fortunately, that did not elude Bellocchio, who was able to cast the angelic-looking youngster Enea Sala in the role. “I found myself particularly lucky in the choice of this child… he doesn’t come from a religious background. But he was able to convey and understand the struggle that the child character in the film has to go through.” Certainly, the scenes showing the young Mortara being wrenched away from his mother are among the film’s most harrowing.

Bellocchio points out that Sala had never been in a church before in his life but had experienced overwhelming loss. Not least because the boy’s own mother fell ill and later died. “Obviously the child experienced that suffering and that sense of longing for the security of a mother. So that is the reason why we resonate with this performance because he latched on to this character’s story of being separated from his much-loved mother.”

Kidnapped premiered at Cannes last May – the very same film festival that gave Bellocchio an honorary Palme d’Or in 2021. Playing in official competition, the same selection as Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-winning The Zone of Interest, the world was in a very different place then. “When the film was shot and first shown, we didn’t have the Gaza crisis… so we had the freedom to shoot it in a particular way,” says Bellocchio. “Now perhaps it will resonate in a different way because of what’s happening.”

Would he have made it after the crisis began? He shrugs, uncertain. “Maybe too many factors would have to be acknowledged and dealt with. Maybe I would say it’s not the right moment to tell the story.” So far, though, Jewish journalists have reacted favourably to the film, Bellocchio reports. “But the truth of the film, which is the inescapable truth, is what the fundamentalist attitude within religions may cause. There are victims in any case, and this is a particular moment in time being captured.”

Indeed, Bellocchio sees Kidnapped as a warning against religious extremism. “We all know that perhaps there’s always a branch in every religion which has fundamentalist undertones because religious people think they’re right. So they have access to the truth. What happened then in 1858 in Italy, it is unthinkable that it could happen in Italy nowadays, but perhaps it could happen in a different context somewhere else right now.”

Released in Italy last May, directly after the Cannes premiere, the film did not stir up controversy in the Catholic church, an institution so rocked by sexual abuse scandals these past years. Instead, the Italian notes: “There was great acceptance.

“They didn’t even try to overlook it. And actually the Catholic church admitted it was a mistake they made. They didn’t try to defend either that policy or Pius IX in particular.” It’s the sign, the director adds, of a more “progressive agenda” in the church these days.

Next year, Bellocchio marks his 60th anniversary as a director. At the time of his 1965 debut Fists in the Pocket  he was part of a radical communist group. He’s still all about group action. “One of the things that I appreciate the most in film-making is it is a communal and a collective,” he says. “And the fact that you have to bounce off ideas and knowhow with other people of different ages, different backgrounds, different genders is something really healthy for the individual.”

Despite his age, he’s not lost his enthusiasm for film – and he’s currently working on a TV drama about Italian TV personality Enzo Tortora, who was caught up in a huge, career-ending scandal in the 1980s. There seems to be no sign of any slowing down from the director. “Fortunately, I am still able to tell the stories that I care about and that interest me via the medium of film – which is the medium that I know the most,” he says. “So as long as I am able to make films, I will be making films.”

Kidnapped is in cinemas from April 26.

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