VENICE (Reuters) - A 2009 right-to-die case that deeply split public opinion in Catholic Italy is at the center of a new film exploring the themes of euthanasia, suicide and religious faith that is vying for top prize at the Venice festival.
"Bella Addormentata", which translates as Sleeping Beauty, is set in the final days of Eluana Englaro, a 38-year old woman who had been in a coma since a car crash 17 years earlier and became a household name in Italy when her father decided to suspend artificial nutrition.
Mixing real TV footage and fictional characters, director Marco Bellocchio recreates the heated debate that surrounded Englaro's death.
Outside the clinic where she was hospitalized, pro-life activists clashed with euthanasia supporters; inside parliament, lawmakers traded insults as then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi tried to ram through a bill that would have forced doctors to resume feeding her through a tube.
Englaro died as senators discussed the bill in a late-night session.
Against that backdrop, the film's four main characters offer their diverse and conflicting points of view on end-of-life and free will issues and the moral dilemmas they raise.
While the film is clearly more sympathetic towards secular opinions, Bellocchio said he had deliberately avoided taking a firm stance by giving voice to a variety of perspectives.
"My ideas are certainly different from those of some of the characters in the film, but I can find something to relate to in all of them," he told reporters after a press screening in Venice.
"I have no faith but I respect those who do, and look at them with curiosity and interest."
He said he had spoken about the film with Eluana's father, Beppino Englaro, who battled his way through Italian courts for a decade to have her feeding tube removed, becoming a symbol for right-to-die advocates.
"He did not raise any objections. I know he has seen it, but I don't want to say anything about what he thinks of it," Bellocchio said.
Veteran Italian actor Toni Servillo plays a senator from Berlusconi's center-right party torn between political loyalty and personal convictions, and also struggling to find common ground with his daughter, a Catholic pro-life activist.
Isabelle Huppert is cast as the Divine Mother, a famous actress who turns to religion in the hope of reawakening her own daughter from a vegetative state. And a drug-addict sees her attempts to take her own life repeatedly thwarted by a young doctor.
"Ultimately the question asked by the film is that we want to be free to choose but then what do we do with that freedom once we have it," said Huppert. "No one can answer that and we did not have an answer when shooting it."
Bella Addormentata is one of three Italian titles in the main competition at the Venice festival, which ends on Saturday.
Reporting By Silvia Aloisi, editing by Paul Casciato