Rome, 1978. Having rented an apartment and built a secret cell in it, a group of Red Brigade terrorists kidnap Aldo Moro, the president of the Christian Democrats (the party that for more than thirty years has governed Italy), and keep him imprisoned for almost two months. Among the jailors is a woman, Chiara, the only one who is allowed to maintain contact with the outside world and have a regular job. In his cell Moro undergoes a ‘proletarian trial’, where he has to account for the accusations that the leader Mariano presents to him about the alleged abuses his party has always perpetrated against the workers. In the apartment, the group’s clandestine life is split between this interrogation, watching TV news and household chores. Listening to people’s comments and reading Moro’s letters to his wife, Chiara starts having doubts about the necessity of killing the prisoner. Working as a librarian, she meets the young Enzo, who turns out to be the author of the script the group found in Moro’s briefcase, Good Morning, Night. Talking to her about the story he is writing, Enzo indirectly contributes to the development of Chiara’s resistance to Moro’s killing.
Throughout his multifaceted career, Marco Bellocchio has gained a national and international reputation as one of the few Italian auteurs who has constantly criticized the oppressive influence that institutions such as the Catholic Church and the family exert over Italian society. In the same way, in Buongiorno, notte, Bellocchio challenges official historiography by tackling what is unanimously considered the crucial event in Italian contemporary history, namely the 1978 kidnapping and murder of the Christian Democrat president Aldo Moro by the left-wing revolutionary group the Red Brigades. For its political significance, and above all for its unprecedented non-stop coverage by the media, this affair is still discussed and remembered in Italy as the first and unequalled case of collective trauma, which has been revisited by an inexhaustible production of literature, theatrical and filmic texts in an attempt to overcome the silences and unanswered questions that followed.
Contrary to films such as Il caso Moro/The Moro Affair (Giuseppe Ferrara, 1986) and Piazza delle Cinque Lune/Five Moons Plaza (Renzo Martinelli, 2003), Buongiorno, notte avoids attempting uncertain realistic reconstructions or suggesting theories of international plots, as its main aim is to look at how we shape memory. The fact that the film declares itself to be ‘freely inspired’ by the memoir The Prisoner (2004), by Anna Laura Braghetti, the female member of the kidnapping team that lived with Moro in the apartment where he was held prisoner, challenges the viewer’s expectation of a realist version with a definitive stand on the story. In Braghetti’s literary work, more or less known facts are interwoven with details of a more personal nature concerning the daily life and the atmosphere in the apartment. Bellocchio lingers on some of them to build up the fictionalization of the event, which, whilst intended to be symbolic, contributes above all to questioning the way representational means, first of all visual ones, are produced and organized to construct the memory of past events. This happens through the use of clips interspersed from other films – such as Paisà/Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946), and Dziga Vertov’s Tri pesni o Lenine/Three Songs About Lenin (1936) - and TV footage, and the narrative addition of a paradoxical character, Enzo, who appears as the writer of Buongiorno, notte’s script. With its more or less scandalous fictional references (the title itself is a line from Emily Dickinson) and inventions, among which its very disputed ending, Buongiorno, notte can ‘put the real in parenthesis’ precisely because Bellocchio can count on the audience’s knowledge of the facts. Instead of contributing to any conflict-ridden debate by commenting on the silences of the Moro affair, the director chooses to follow an alternative path: that is, he reconstructs history as a means of challenging the view that it is territory for ideological opposition, common in post-war Italy, and rather to suggest the idea of history as a critical tool.
Above all, the reference to the memoir allows Bellocchio to concentrate on the human aspects of the terrorists’ characters – it is precisely this humanization that has attracted most criticism – not only as ordinary lower-middle-class individuals with their daily paranoia and dependence on the television, but also as people with an inner maturity. In fact, Chiara, the fictional character embodying Braghetti’s point of view, comes to question the darkness of the Red Brigades’ ideology, reaching a ‘humanist enlightenment’ that makes her consider the possibility of changing the course of events. This is a pathway towards the ‘redemption’ of the past, which liberates new responsibilities to be taken in the present: with the failure of political power, it becomes an individual and civil responsibility to liberate Moro.