La Balia (1999)

“Always remain a free woman.”

The Italian film, La Balia explores motherhood and the role of women against the backdrop of social unrest in early 20th century Rome. Wealthy Professor Mori (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) is a psychiatrist in charge of an asylum for female patients. Mori’s wife, Vittoria (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) gives birth to a boy, but she’s unable to nurse the baby. Mori goes to the country and employs a wet nurse, Annetta (Maya Sansa)–with the stipulation that she leaves her own baby boy behind in her village and returns to Rome to nurse his son.

Annetta is a good wet nurse, and this, naturally, pleases Professor Mori. Vittoria, however, is consumed with feelings of uselessness and jealousy. There seems to be no role remaining for Vittoria to fill, and her insecurity grows. Unfortunately, Vittoria cannot easily voice these concerns to her husband. Ironically, while Mori is devoted to his patients, he seems unable to connect with his wife’s depression. Mori admires Annetta’s spontaneity and ability to express affection, and when she asks him to teach her how to read and write, he agrees.

La Balia makes a statement about the plight of women–women are locked up in one form or another, and even though Vittoria is a ‘free woman’ she evidently has a great number of issues to cope with. The film shows scenes of the village women queuing up to apply for the job of wet nurse, and this is just one of the humiliations to be experienced before getting the job. It’s heart wrenchingly cruel to expect a woman to leave her own baby to go feed another, and yet Professor Mori and his wife expect Annetta to do just that. But the bottom line is that Annetta needs money, and the Moris have it. While the Moris seem unconnected to the social unrest that swirls around their home, they’re obviously tied to it by their status and wealth alone.

La Balia  is a pretty film, and the domestic drama is set against turbulent times. The father of Annetta’s baby is a ‘subversive’ and the politics of the time provide a faint subplot for the film. While there’s nothing horribly wrong with this film, it’s a little tepid and superficial, and the ending is unsatisfying. Based on a novel by Luigi Pirandello La Balia is from director Marco Bellocchio. In Italian with English subtitles.

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