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Italian prostitutes raise a mentally handicapped man as if he was their baby, in this raw and tender tale of motherly affection in the most unlikely of places - live from the Official Selection of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Arturo (Simone Zambelli) was abandoned as a baby inside a crevice by the seaside, on a craggy Italian beach. His mother was killed by the infuriated father of the man who impregnated her (presumably a client). We never see her face. Arturo grows into a beautiful young man with the mental age of one or two. He is not able to talk or engage in any sort of communication, his gait is twisted, his arms often twerking in the air, he has to wear nappies, and he has violent convulsive episodes. He grunts, he growls, and he often smiles. He is a man baby. Zambelli delivers a courageously honest performance. You would be forgiven for assuming that the Italian actor has cerebral palsy. He does not.

Emma Dante’s third feature film takes place in an unnamed location in the impoverished south of Italy. The prostitutes inhabit a precarious shack converted into a brothel on the seaside, and there is little sign of modern civilisation nearby except for the clients that provide them with subsistence. Ruins of a church and an old construction so dilapidated that it’s barely recognisable add a touch of abandonment to this unusual story of collective motherhood. The fact that these women are so profoundly marginalised might help to explain why they feel such duty and allegiance towards the vulnerable Arturo. They possess the dearest virtues of mankind: solidarity and compassion.

The rawness of these primitive lives is strangely beautiful. The scene in which the overweight Nuccia proudly showcases her butt wiggle to the other women is filled with spontaneity and joy. This brothel is a sorority: the women love, trust and respect each other. Nudity is very frank too: we see both Nuccia and Arturo in their birthday suit, and the gaze is neither fetishised nor exploitative. This isn’t poverty porn. But it is Arturo who delivers the most fascinating scenes: he plays with the small children (presumably the offspring of the women) in the nude as if he was one of them, completely unaware of the potential offensiveness of his nakedness. And the scratches his buttocks against the rocks like a dog with worms. Only later we understand that he’s in reality attempting to masturbate. Berta, the most motherly of the prostitutes, teaches him how to use his hand instead.

There is, however, one big challenge that this tightly-knit community has to overcome. Arturo’s adult body combined with a baby attitude is deeply offensive to customers, some of whom are the epitome of toxic masculinity. One of them decides to take matters into his own hands, which could have a deep impact on the life of Arturo and the very existence of the community. Berta fears for the future of their man baby. She does not want to give him up, yet she confesses that at times she wants to murders him (a mercy killing, a gesture of goodwill in a world so full of hate and intolerance). So what will become of poor Arturo?

Ultimately, this is a tale of hope and joy at the face of the most extreme adversity. A heartwarming watch.

Misericordia just premiered in the Official Selection of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 11-11-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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