“Marx Can Wait”: A Filmmaker Ponders His Brother’s Suicide
[With the awareness that many families are grappling with the mental health issues of their children — depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide — I offer the following discussion. Where once the threat to youth was external — car wrecks, drugs — now it is internal, say experts: the hopelessness engendered by political dysfunction, cultural thinness, viral peril (pandemics). The film discussed here maps the hard-won wisdom of one family making peace with a beloved who took his own life.]
At a time when political and cultural turmoil threatens to devour us, this film about paying attention to our beloveds in extremis is powerfully instructive. Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio, with over 50 years of films portraying political, social, and family struggle, turns in this intimate documentary — “Marx Can Wait” — to examine the event haunting him throughout his life and shadowing all his work: the suicide, at age 29, of his twin brother Camillo.
It is Camillo himself who, in his despair, provides this film’s title. Compared to his twin, whose first two films put him on the cinematic map — “Fists in the Pocket” and “China Is Near” — and compared to his journalist brother Piergiorgio, Camillo felt “unimportant” and lost, having failed at university, the military, also at love. Finally, when he writes to Marco for guidance, inquiring if perhaps there was room in the film industry for him — “Give it some thought” — Marco fails to hear the desperation in the diffidence. Instead he responds with “revolutionary bulls***” about dedicating oneself to serving “the people” and throwing off the bourgeois shackles that “determined” Camillo’s unhappiness; he even spoke of “revolutionary optimism” and suggested reading Marx’ “Das Kapital.” To which, Camillo replied: “Marx can wait,” meaning, as Marco, comprehending too late, now translates: “Buddy, I have more primary concerns than serving the people.”
Sadly, no one — neither family nor friends — heard his appeals. Unable to go on, Camillo hanged himself.
Fifty years later the suicide still haunts the family. With the cooperation of all remaining siblings — Piergiorgio, Letizia, Alberto, Maria Luisa: a fascinating lot — Marco proposes he make a film about the family, with the tacit understanding Camillo will be its focal point. The film begins with a lunch — of course: This is Italy — where a nephew toasts the uncle he never met, caro Camillo, whom he always heard referred to as un’angelo. While suicide’s mystery can never be fully explicated, to get at greater clarity the siblings, in follow-on interviews, lay out their coordinates, as it were, also their beliefs: Letizia, for one, must believe Camillo’s death was an accident. As is the way with families, the siblings learn new things from each other, even after 50 years.
The collective picture — conveyed with family photos, archival footage, clips from Marco’s films — is fraught, both from within and without. Born two months after World War II began, with Italy allying with Hitler’s Germany, the twins’ early years are harrowing. Their hometown Piacenza, in the north, is bombed; the children must be evacuated. Peacetime is by no means peaceful: Their oldest brother, Paolo, is certifiably crazy, but rather than institutionalize him, the parents keep him at home, a noble decision with a terrible cost: Sensitive Camillo is assigned to room with someone constantly yelling, at the top of his lungs, damnation on the family and, in a household where the mother is hyper-religious and the father anti-clerical, on God. A clip from one of Marco’s films illustrates: “Paolo” screaming “Why was I born?” while his siblings hide, wishing him dead. It was, Marco tells us, a “madhouse”; this documentary’s theme is “survival.”
Sorting-out comes with school, where Marco excels while a failing Camillo must be kept “in tow.” The father decides Camillo will become a surveyor, a misguided trajectory, as all now agree. The father’s early death leaves Camillo, the father’s favorite, inconsolable. Upon graduation, Marco and Giorgio strike out on their chosen paths, meeting early success: Marco begins earning awards; Giorgio, founder of a leftist magazine, brings writers and poets to the family home. To Camillo, they seem “stars”: While they’ve just begun their careers, he is awed by their determination, a quality he lacks totally. Especially in his twin, Camillo sees “possibility”: Marco “went to Rome….” and there created something out of nothing — something Camillo cannot do. This is conflict of an ancient kind: sibling rivalry. Wisely, Alberto, who humorously describes himself as a “half-wit,” did not do what Camillo did: compare himself with his brilliant brothers. Alberto forged his own path, made a career as a union rep.
Over the course of this compelling film, we see the siblings each in their distinctive personality, their humanity. Yet, while all agree with Alberto that Camillo was shrouded “in a veil of melancholy,” these perceptive and deep people could not reach him. In all the family photos and home movies, Camillo is the one with the lost look, the slump, who even in a group seems apart, alone; though we never hear his voice, he seems always to be sighing.
By the time the siblings recount the specifics of Camillo’s death, their guilt is palpable. But so is their wisdom, painfully wrought — about life, death, their brother, their enduring love for him. Also about their mother: This viewer worried she’d remain the villain, condemned for her inability to truly see her children, so vital to a child’s growth. But all the siblings now see: Their mother was herself bereaved from the start — widowed too soon, with a crazy son, a deaf daughter (Letizia).
Tellingly, perhaps compulsively, Marco from the start has woven into his own films his family’s tragedy. He could not wait for what Henry James called “the figure in the carpet” to emerge; as an artist must, he had to work with his demons, wrest Art from that struggle. Various clips from his films reflect his biography’s particulars: a crazy “Paolo,” a hyper-religious Roman Catholic mother, a “Camillo” with a bullet hole in the head. Most moving clip: when a dead “Camillo” appears to his mother, awakened from sleep, and assures her, she who believes in the fires of Hell, that he’s fine where he is, really.
Marco is up-front about his profound guilt — failing to see Camillo’s pain, failing to love him better, failing to respond more helpfully. But then: What could have helped Camillo? Each of us must forge our path, it can’t be done for us. Marco, in his quest for redemption, finds (not surprisingly) the most enlightening input from figures outside the family: from Giovanna, sister of Camillo’s girlfriend, who tells hm: “He perceived you did not think very highly of him” — which, if true, is damning. And, truly surprising for the anti-cleric Marco, consolation and insight from a cleric. Yet, the final note is self-indictment: At the end we see images of Marco, budding filmmaker, observing Camillo as if a subject; of the aging Marco juxtaposed with the forever young, forever lost, Camillo.
On a second viewing, I saw another aspect to this film, additional utility. In the present political tumult, ongoing worldwide, there is, rightly or wrongly, growing antipathy directed by the masses toward “the elites,” antipathy that’s manipulated by opportunistic leaders. Camillo may point the way here: At first he is in awe of his elite brothers, but over time awe turns to fear, and then hatred. Such hatred can turn inward, as with Camillo, or turn outward, to violence and revolution. If there’s a political takeaway to this film, it is: Attenzione, elites. Care more for the people.
There is a cultural note to make, too. Camillo’s family describes him as “a nice ‘bad boy,’” with “a great desire to enjoy life,” but who, along with his close pals, came to “sneer” at “commitment” — to family, society, church, profession, the world. While sneering at much post-World War II life is valid — the increasing hypocrisy, abuse, sleaze — sneering simply is not enough; one must feed on more nourishing fare. But today’s death-loving cultural fare is thin, even toxic gruel. The “bad-boy” archetype is at its apotheosis, with fare like TV’s “Breaking Bad” — the title signals playing moral footsie — a series so popular and acclaimed that a sequel was spawned (“Better Call Saul”), yet now its creator, per The New Yorker, wants dearly to write “good guys.” This week The New York Times reviewed a new TV series about a therapist “with boundary issues” (“The Patient”), with this headline (in the print edition): “How’s the Serial Killing Working for You?” Really? From our “newspaper of record”? Parents, attenzione: Consider the damage done to youth consuming such “transgressive” fare. I’ve not seen Bellocchio’s other films: Based on the clips here (crazy screaming brothers), I’d likely pass. To what extent his oeuvre features the transgressive, I cannot say (but The New Yorker and Criterion Collection can). But I can say, “Marx Can Wait” is a deeply humanist and life-affirming work, reaching for the light.
While a tragedy, this film, as Art can do, does not crush, but enriches, elevates, comforts. And its Italian setting helps: Just one year in Italy (at graduate school in Bologna, near Piacenza) assuaged me of a difficult childhood, thus I am disposta to all things Italian. I recall a wise Italian maxim told to me: “Ramentare le ore felice” — Remember the happy hours. This film does exactly that.
This film is available for streaming online. Trailer for the film is here.