Kidnapped: The extraordinary story of the six-year-old abducted by the Catholic Church

Film director Marco Bellocchio on Edgardo Mortara, a ‘baptised’ Jewish boy taken from his family, and scandal that weakened power of pope

Marco Bellocchio became an overnight sensation in 1965 when Fists in the Pocket, the Italian director’s shocking portrait of disaffected youth and dysfunctional domestic life, premiered at Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. The feature, which had been rejected by Venice, was publicly pummelled by the Italian Christian Democratic Party and by his fellow film-makers Luis Buñuel and Michelangelo Antonioni as a Marxist attack on bourgeois family values. Pier Paolo Pasolini, conversely, praised Bellocchio, who was then in his mid-20s, and his “cinema of prose”.

“That film is almost 60 years old,” says Bellocchio. “It contained this moment in time in my life that really was full of rage and desperation. Sometimes I go to screenings where it’s presented and then debated. I’m really interested in how it still resonates with young people today. It’s not a film I could shoot now.”

Perhaps. And yet, aged 84, the director has produced a work that’s powered along by equally righteous fury. Kidnapped, which is based on a true story, and premiered in competition at Cannes last year, is a thrilling entry in the CV of a film-maker who received the French festival’s career-marking Palme d’Or d’Honneur in 2021.

What happened is maddening. One night in 1858, police arrived at the home of a Jewish family in Bologna, the Mortaras, and took their six-year-old son, Edgardo; authorities claimed that he was Catholic, as a maid had secretly baptised the boy, the sixth of eight children, when he fell sick during infancy, and must therefore be brought up by the church. Pope Pius IX was personally involved in Edgardo’s education even as his desperate family continued to appeal for his return. In one scene in the film, rabbis who try to intervene are told to go back to the “hole” of their Roman ghetto.


Steven Spielberg planned to film the story as The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, with Mark Rylance and Oscar Isaac. Julian Schnabel, the director of the Oscar-nominated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and At Eternity’s Gate, has also attempted to bring the tale to the big screen.

For Bellocchio, this needed to be an Italian film.

“It’s not a story that was known as we were growing up,” says the director. “I read about it in parallel with Spielberg and Schnabel. We all came to the story through different books that talked about it. The book that made me interested was Kidnapped by the Vatican?, by Vittorio Messori. That book was a defence of the pope’s actions. My film is not an assault on the church. It tries to see both sides.

“Messori’s book said that the Catholic Church had the right to convert a child who had been baptised by stealth by the Catholic help of the family. The book also argued that the Holy Spirit had intervened to make the miracle of the conversion, that this Jewish child had seen the light, that he freely and spontaneously converted to Catholicism and was imbued by the divine.”

Edgardo’s abduction and enforced conversion prompted international outrage, helped bring Napoleon III behind the cause of Italian reunification and saw the papal territory shrink in size and influence. (The Mortara affair also led to alarm in the run-up to Pius IX’s beatification, in 2000.)

As Bellocchio acknowledges, it’s complicated. Edgardo later became a priest and expressed gratitude to the church. He spent the rest of his life attempting to convert Jews, including his baffled own family, as Bellocchio’s film powerfully depicts. “I have always ardently desired that my mother embrace the Catholic faith,” Edgardo wrote to the Le Temps newspaper, “and I tried many times to get her to do so. However, that never happened.”

“You are Irish, I am Italian; we understand the pervasive power and influence of the Catholic Church,” says the director, who has loosely based his feature on a book by the Italian author Daniele Scalise. “I’ve experienced the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland through films and books. They are in parallel with what happened in Italy. Great crimes and outrages were committed. They were not without victims.

“I latched on to this story because it’s fascinating as a moment in time of both the macro and the micro of the emancipation of Italy and the fall of the papal reign in Italy. This was not the first kidnapping of a child in Italy. It was one of the very last. But it was the embodiment of the influence of the church on the territory and the monolithic nature of religious dogma.”

Reactions to the Mortara case continue to spark debate. One of the most trenchant recent defences of the church’s actions has come from Romanus Cessario, a professor of theology and Dominican priest, who argues that they were in line with canon law – and, indeed, with civil law in Bologna at the time. “Christ’s authority perfects all natural institutions – the family as well as the state. This is why he said that he came bearing a sword that would sunder father and son,” Cessario writes.

Bellocchio’s film includes many contemporaneous reports and cartoons about the abduction, and its production design takes cues from Moritz Daniel Oppenheim’s painting The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, from 1862. These references inform Kidnapped’s most absorbing scenes.

“There are so many books about this,” says Bellocchio. “We found the legal documents pertaining to the inquisitor of the family and child in Bologna. Of all the sources, including Jewish sources and Catholic sources, we know that there was a meeting between Edgardo Mortara and his mother and that she tried to shake him into remembering his family and his roots.

“We know from other documents that the church felt they were obliged in their course of action. The pope visited the child many times to strengthen the argument that a miracle occurred. Once Rome was liberated by the state, Edgardo could have left, but he remained. During the trial, what you see in the movie are extracts from the trial. Everything you hear from the inquisitor’s defence lawyer, however unbelievable, was actually said.”

Kidnapped is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday April 26th