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'Smile' has a devilish wit and charm

You think your mom's a saint? Ernesto (Sergio Castellitto) has just found out his late mother is on the Vatican's short list to be canonized, and he's not happy about it at all.

''My Mother's Smile," a 2002 film released in Italy as ''The Religion Hour," is a full-hearted affront to the Church from writer-director Marco Bellocchio, who has been discomfiting moviegoers with exquisitely drawn tales of bad behavior since 1965's ''Fist in His Pocket." It's a bit of a mess but strong stuff nevertheless -- a mournful, often wickedly funny religious satire that suggests what Kafka might have come up with had he been raised Catholic.

A celebrated painter and multimedia artist, Ernesto is stunned to learn from a cardinal's assistant that his mother has been nominated for sainthood. His own memories of her aren't particularly fond -- ''She was stupid; she understood nothing," he dryly tells the cardinal (Maurizio Donadoni) -- but one of his four brothers is pushing hard for sanctification, and the rest of the family is falling in line. ''Don't you understand the advantages of having a saint for a mother?" Ernesto is asked. Such advantages are clearly more worldly than celestial.

The cardinal, a youngish sort in a natty three-piece suit, is at the stage of investigating the mother's martyrdom, miracles, and holy virtues, and he wants to hear from Ernesto about her death at the hands of his mentally disturbed oldest brother, Egidio (Donato Placido), who now sits stubbornly mute in an asylum. Did she forgive her murderer as she lay dying? There can be no canonization otherwise, and so the family presses Egidio to speak. His silence says volumes.

Ernesto, for his part, is a lifelong atheist who suddenly finds himself contending with the inexplicable inner workings of the Church; he can't even remember how to cross himself correctly. His response to all the madness is a gentle disbelieving smile -- his mother's smile, as he's reminded more than once -- that only serves to infuriate everyone around him. This includes, in the movie's most far-fetched tangent, a count (Toni Bertorelli) who challenges Ernesto to a duel. The real deal: seconds, swords at sunrise, and honor at stake.

''My Mother's Smile," then, is a standoff between modern Italy and an older power structure that refuses to relinquish its grip, no matter how surreal its demands have become. Ernesto isn't faithless; he merely puts his faith in people -- his clever young son, Leonardo (Alberto Mondini), Leonardo's diaphanous religion teacher, Diana (Chiara Conti). The comedy, bleak but effective, comes from watching how that faith is constantly abused.

The film lurches dreamily from scene to scene and at times doesn't care to make sense -- or, rather, it relies on cultural and religious subtexts that perhaps only Italian audiences can grasp. But Bellocchio sustains a delicately pungent mood of exasperation in the face of human folly (Ernesto's included), and Castellitto (''Mostly Martha," ''Don't Move") is the perfect hangdog picture of rational man confounded by a medievalism that refuses to die. He may be able to bring the temple down, but only through art, and that may never be enough.

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