When can consensual sex become rape: “La condanna” [1991 Italy]

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Marco Bellocchio throws the cat among the pigeons in his courtroom drama “La condanna” [Eng. Title: The Conviction] by pitting the legal interpretation of consensual sex against the dynamics of sexual politics.

“Does the female expect the male to take the initiative and prepare her for sex?” “At what point does an act of sex become rape even when there is no violence involved?” “Is it necessary to surrender oneself to the moment in order to enjoy sex?” Just when we thought these age-old questions have already been put to rest, Bellocchio raises them again in his inimitable style in the above film, and while the topic and its tone look visibly dated from the time when it was made, the reason I’m writing about it is because it’s a clever piece of filmmaking where the director elegantly suffuses realism with symbolism. He builds up his arguments using the following premise:

During a visit to the Castello Farnese museum, art student Sandra gets separated from her colleagues, and finds herself locked-in for the night after going in search of her lost house-keys. After assuming that she has the place all to herself for the night, she’ll be surprised and disturbed when a middle-aged man appears from the darkened corridors. Lorenzo (Vittorio Mezzogiorno, father of the actress Giovanna) is a sophisticated and well-informed architect, but his approach to Sandra is overbearingly sexual, and his advances, Sandra will find either unwilling or unable to resist. They have sex several times between their arty conversations and each time, it is Lorenzo who stokes Sandra’s desire for sex, without using force or violence. They both appear to enjoy their unexpected union, and Lorenzo is even convinced that she had experienced orgasm.

But they will soon face each other in court, after Sandra accuses him of sexual assault. Apparently Lorenzo had the keys to the museum all the time, and if he had wanted to, they could have either avoided the uneasy sexual encounter, or together exercised free will in their choice to have sex. But he chooses not to inform Sandra about the keys until the following morning – he felt there was no need to divulge information that was not asked for. Lorenzo makes a spirited defence of his noble intentions using arguments that cannot be supported with evidence, but will nevertheless provide food for thought for the jury and audience.

Prosecuting the case is Giovanni (Andrzej Seweryn), himself having issues with girlfriend Monica (Grazyna Szapolowska) when it comes to sex – she’s unhappy with his non-spontaneity, and similarly equates his sexual foreplay to rape, in his desire to control and choreograph proceedings. A dilemma is presented when Giovanni tries to do the right thing according to law but is confronted, at home and through an encounter elsewhere, by factors that paint a more complex picture in sexual relationships, that can be theorised but not scientifically explained.

There are few directors like Bellocchio who can eloquently put forward a controversial viewpoint without resorting to sensationalism. In the film, he appears to be in total control of each frame captured, and every nuance from the characters. The pivotal ‘rape’ scene is done using a single take, and shown from a detached perspective, where there is no dialogue, and the only attempt at narrative are the characters’ exaggerated body movements – like in performance art, leaving the audience to interpret as they see it. The editing is seamless and almost invisible when they happen, and the cinematography is a treat. Despite the fine performances from all the main cast, Polish actress and Krzysztof Kieslowski-regular Grazyna Szapolowska’s easily stands out from the rest. Controversial, challenging, and intriguing as ever, this is also a thought-provoking film from Marco Bellocchio that’s Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL] | English Subtitles


The Nudity: Claire Nebout, Vittorio Mezzogiorno, Grazyna Szapolowska, Andrzej Seweryn, and Maria Sneider
There are brief flashes of nudity from Claire Nebout in the aforementioned scene that gives the film its purpose – Sandra and Lorenzo indulge in sex while staying clothed for the most part – it is a single six minute long take. This is followed by another extended scene where Sandra reclines in a nude pose reminiscent of Goya’s La maja desnuda. There is rear nudity from Vittorio Mezzogiorno as his character describes Sandra as a work of art waiting to be given life (in a monologue that’ll draw comparison of his forthcoming act of rape to a child being born, whereby a picturesque but static beauty such as her will finally breathe ’emotion’ and attain purpose). There is also nudity from Andrzej Seweryn and Grazyna Szapolowska during a post-coital scene. There’s fleeting nudity from Maria Sneider (not Maria Schneider as IMDB and everyone else seem to claim), as a peasant woman drinking water from a spring.

Claire Nebout, Vittorio Mezzogiorno, Grazyna Szapolowska, Andrzej Seweryn, and Maria Sneider nude in La condanna aka The Conviction

Marco Bellocchio’s controversial film, “La condanna” aka “The Conviction” also features nudity from Claire Nebout, Vittorio Mezzogiorno, Grazyna Szapolowska, and Andrzej Seweryn.



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