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Rapito (Kidnapped): The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara – a film review

Director: Marco Bellocchio 
Released: May 2023

A family in anguish

A father’s desperation to protect his family, a mother’s anguish at losing a son to a bullying child snatcher, a boy’s confusion at being cruelly separated from his family at the ripe age of six years then indoctrinated into a new religion and a narcissist’s determination to assert his absolute to prevail politically. These were some of the key characters and the emotional themes that capture the essence of a film which we find at once infuriating as well as grippingly illuminating of Italian and papal history.

The story

In 1858, six-year-old Edgardo Levi Mortara—the sixth of eight children in a closely-knit Jewish family living in Bologna, Italy—was kidnapped from his family and taken to Rome at the orders of then Pope Pius IX to be raised as a Catholic. This baffling edict was issued and duly executed on the understanding that the boy had been secretly baptized as an infant by his 14-year-old Catholic servant girl Anna “Nisi” Morisi six years prior.

The illiterate young girl, relying on her own uninformed and unqualified judgement that the boy was gravely ill (and would therefore go to Limbo should he die). She took it upon herself to save the boy and decided to perform an “emergency” baptism. Never mind, this rash act was done six years ago and without consent of the child or his legal guardians or informing them.

And as if her well-meaning albeit misguided intentions weren’t ludicrous enough, the Pope upheld her claim in insisting that the boy, now deemed a Christian, must be raised as one, justifying his forced removal from the Jewish household.

Edgardo’s parents’ futile efforts to retrieve their child from the grasp of a most cruel, uncompassionate and malevolent force took its toll on them. Despite the scandal bringing global condemnation of the Vatican and Pope Pius IX, the latter nevertheless refused to back down.

The Mortara case, according to writer David I Kertzer, was an anti-Catholic “publicist’s dream”, when it became a massive controversy in both Europe and the United States when news spread of the shocking abduction. Voices across the social spectrum called for the Pope to return Edgardo to his parents. The Mortara case became a cause célèbre, not only for Jews but also Protestant Christians as well, particularly in the United States, where anti-Catholic sentiment abounded.

The film

Director Marco Bellocchio has given us a lush cinematic account of such an explosive situation in history which occurred in Italy in the 1850s. It is a richly detailed and visually sweeping period drama. And it draws our attention to a little-known incident (well, I had not heard of it before) which turned out to be a pivotal element in diminishing the cruel, unchecked power of the Roman Catholic Church which up to then had controlled what was known as the Papal States prior to the unification and formation of the nation of Italy.

If the basis for this social atrocity instigated by the Vatican wasn’t so jaw-droppingly ridiculous, you would find it hard to believe this really happened. But it did. While accounts of this episode have conveniently been omitted from history recording the Risorgimento (the movement for the unification and independence of Italy which was achieved in 1870), it was only through the subsequent work of Jewish historians that this tragic and shameful episode were brought back to the fore.      


Young Enea Sala plays to perfection the innocent, cherubic and untainted six-year-old Edgardo, when his is abducted six years after his “secret” baptism. He gives way to Leonardo Maltese who takes over as Edgardo the adolescent; suitably cast with sinister darkened and sunken eyes to portray a socially developed and less innocent personality following his cruel “re-education”.

Fausto Russi Alesi portrays Edgardo’s father, Salomone “Momolo” Mortara, appearing often in a state of frantic despair at being unable to keep his family safe. Barbara Ronchi plays the boy’s grief-stricken mother Marianna Mortara, whose life changed dramatically and irretrievably following her son’s kidnapping.

Paulo Pierobon is convincing as the pompous, heartless, menacing, and egotistical Pope Pius IX. The ice-cold Bologna inquisitor Father Feletti, who was responsible for sending the report of the “secret” baptism to Pope Pius IX, which triggered the whole mess, is played by Fabrizio Gifuni.


According to American journalist Michael Goldfarb, the Mortara controversy provided “an embarrassing example of just how out of touch with modern times the Church was”. He thought the Mortara affair demonstrated that “Pope Pius IX was incapable of bringing the Church into the modern era”. In the twenty-first century, many Catholics see the affair as a cause for shame and example of abuse of authority or antisemitism in the Church.

Unsurprisingly, some supporters of Catholic integralism (the interpretation of Catholic social teaching that argues the principle that the Catholic faith should be the basis for public law and public policy within civil society). Zealots such as Romanus Cessario defend Pope IX’s rather untenable position in arguing that civil liberties should be subordinate to the Catholic religion. How gobsmackingly naïve and ludicrous to expect this of any contemporary multi-religious and multi-racial society!  

Political backdrop

The Papal States were a conglomeration of territories on the Apennine Peninsula under the direct sovereign rule of the Pope from 756 until 1870. When Pope Pius IX was elected in 1846, he was initially widely seen as a great reformer and moderniser, who might throw his weight behind the Risogimento (meaning Resurgence) which was the growing movement for unification of Italy. However, when the revolutions of 1848 broke out, Pius IX refused to support a pan-Italian campaign against the Austrian Empire, which controlled Lombardy-Venitia in the north-east. Pope Pius IX shared the traditional pontifical view that the Papal States were essential to his independence as Head of the Catholic Church.

The nationalist and liberal revolutions of 1848 affected much of Europe. A Roman Republic was declared in February 1849, forcing the hitherto liberally-inclined Pope Pius IX to flee the city. The revolution was suppressed with French help in 1849 and Pius IX switched to a conservative line of government. Until his return to Rome in 1850, the Papal States were governed by a group of cardinals known as Red Triumvirate. Then in 1860, with much of the region already in rebellion against Papal rule, Piedmont-Sardinia invaded and conquered the eastern two-thirds of the Papal States, cementing its hold on the south.

A unified Kingdom of Italy was declared and in March 1861 the first Italian parliament, which met in Turin (the old capital of Piedmont) declared Rome the capital of the new kingdom. The new Italian government was unable to take possession of the city because of a French garrison in Rome protecting the Pope. But this impasse and the opportunity to eliminate the Papal States was eventually resolved in 1870, when Napoleon III recalled his French garrison from Rome during the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, leaving Rome devoid of its French protector. The Italian Army eventually captured Rome in September 1870, signalling the definitive end of the Papal States.

The papacy refused allow the Pope to become an Italian subject, confining itself to an area within Rome. And by 1920, the papacy, then under Pope Pius XI finally renounced the bulk of the Papal States. The Lateran Treaty with Italy (then ruled by the National Fascist Party under Benito Mussolini) was signed in 1929, creating the State of the Vatical City, forming the sovereign territory of the Holy See.

Trial of Father Faletti

The Mortara family’s hopes of having their son returned was given a moment of hope during a trial of Father Faletti, who was arrested in 1860 and charged for his part in arranging the unlawful separation of Edgardo from his family. The trial was the first major case criminal case in Bologna under the new post-Papal States authority.

The servant girl Anna Morisi testified and admitted to having been paid a financial reward by Father Faletti for telling him her story about her “emergency” baptism of Edgardo, with the money she received welcomed as timely dowry for her impending marriage at the time.

More testimony followed, notably around her moral character when witnesses came forth claiming she was known to have had a fling with an unknown young man she had snuck into the Mortara household at night. And yet for her youthful folly her employer was kind enough not to sack her, instead allowing her to continue working for them after she gave birth to a child out of wedlock, once the illegitimate child had been adopted out.

The prosecution against Father Faletti also claimed that the initial baptism by Anna Morisi could not have been deemed valid, if accounts of eye-witnesses were true that a second baptism was subsequently executed by the Pope at the House of Catechumens the boy had been taken to. The defence for Father Faletti’s brushes off that ceremony as more of a “welcome” blessing. And so Anna Morisi’s informal, unwitnessed, ad hoc “civilian’s baptism” must remain legitimate in the eyes of the law. Gobsmacking stuff!

The court eventually disregarded the testimonies, dogmatically holding the position that no matter how dubious the motivations were, once the act of baptism was performed on any child, no matter the circumstances, it meant the child was henceforth deemed a Christian. The child’s separation from his family was justified and he could no longer remain to be corrupted living in a Jewish household. As for Father Faletti’s culpability in the abduction, he was only acting under instructions of his superior, the Pope, and could not be held accountable for merely following those orders. He was therefore found not guilty and absolved of the charges.

But what about the accountability of the Pope for issuing those orders? As supreme pontiff and ruler (even for subjects who don’t align with his religious authority) he was apparently above the law and immune from criminal prosecution—not unlike the current claims by the other would-be dictator Donald Trump in the land of the rising would-be Christian dominionists.     

Non-Jewish servants

So why would a Jewish household open themselves up to risks associated with having a non-Jewish servant working for them? Bologna’s Jewish population of about 900 had been expelled in 1593 by People Clement VIII. Some Jews, mostly merchants such as Edgardo’s father, had started to resettle in Bologna again during the 1780s and, by 1858, there was a Jewish community of about 200 in the city.

The Jews of Bologna then practised Judaism discreetly, with neither a rabbi nor a synagogue. The Papal States officially forbade them to have Christian servants, but observant Jewish families perceived gentile maids as essential because they were not covered by Jewish laws, and thus provided a way for Jews to have household tasks carried out while still observing their Sabbath.

In practice, Church authorities turned a blind eye, and almost every Jewish family in Bologna employed at least on Catholic woman. It seemed like a pragmatic and convenient domestic workaround which served everyone, despite breaking one rule or another… or maybe not, in hindsight!

No consent when imposing “belief” on others?

Perhaps a stretch to infer from this one episode, but revival of this case provides some understanding of why the Church continues to fail to acknowledge how some behaviour is acceptable (or unacceptable based on the idea of consent.

A person’s faith, quite preposterously it seemed then, was not the purview of a child’s legal guardians. A third-party minder, even of a totally unrelated and unaligned religious persuasion with the parents, could somehow trump the consent of the child or those legal guardians by secretly performing an unauthorised religious ritual on the child. How bizarre!

Child abuse

One could argue that religious indoctrination at such an early age, before a child is old enough to discern right from wrong or what is in their own self-interest, should constitute child abuse.

It is even more objectionable in this particular situation; when a six-year-old Edgardo Mortara was forcibly removed from his family and then schooled in a way that went against the wishes of his family and legal guardians. Edgardo’s initial minders, following the abduction, lied to him saying he would be able to see his parents again if he was good and behaved.  

Overwhelmed by his sudden change in domestic circumstances, Edgardo found himself amongst other young boys and was subjected to an education based on Catechism in the Vatican’s Catechumens. Enjoying the camaraderie of his cohort, Edgardo, like a caged animal imitates them and soon falls into accepting and even excelling in the Catholic Catechism. This is not an unusual outcome, with him being kept well away from the counteractive force of his Jewish roots and familial background.

His mother and father are allowed controlled visits to see their son. On one of these occasions, we are shown how Edgardo lets go his guard and wants to return to his family and to be reunited with his siblings. His mother cries for compassion and her son to be release but is faced with an ultimatum that this would be allowed on the singular condition that the whole family renounces their Jewish faith and converts to Catholicism, given their son’s intractable conversion. Holey Moley!  

The systematically brainwashed Edgardo eventually grows up to be a priest and despite the trauma of his unnaturally afflicted orphanhood, is vehemently partisan of the church.

Distasteful deathbed conversion

As an indication of how misguided child indoctrinations can be, we see in one of the final scenes how Edgardo the priest returns to visit his dying mother, having missed witnessing the earlier death of his father. As if she hadn’t suffered enough seeing her son snatched away, never to return and instead be turned into a person whose values and beliefs were totally contrary her own beliefs, Edgardo’s mother is horrified when her prodigal returning son then tries to baptise and convert to Christianity against her will and on her deathbed. He sincerely believed he was “saving” her in return for the gift of her giving birth to him.

You can imagine our immense satisfaction and relief at seeing the poor woman still able to hold her ground and own personal convictions, vehemently insisting that she was born a Jew and will die a Jew. She takes er last breath before the family castigates him for his abject disrespect and offensiveness to his own mother.

Production aspects & filming locations

Contributing to a high level of historical and visual authenticity, the film was actually shot in Bologna and Rome in Italy. Some scenes were also shot in Parma, Nepi and Mantua (Italy), Paris (France) and North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany). It’s easy to spot recognisable landmarks such as Ponte Sant’ Angelo in Rome.

Elaborate ecclesiastical costumes by Sergio Ballo, Daria Calvelli and Alessia Forotti, complement the richly detailed religious surrounds to take us back into the right time and feel of the historical setting of the story.

The film admittedly leans very much into melodrama, relying on an evocative music score from Fabio Massimo Capogrosso to recreate such an important piece of history.

Basis for the movie and other accounts

This movie is based on the book written by Daniele Scalise entitled Il Caso Mortara first published in 1996. With a film script developed by the director himself it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2023, where it was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or Grand Prix. Before landing on the Italian title of Rapito (meaning Kidnapped) other titles such as La Conversione (The Conversion) or Non Possumus (We Cannot) were considered.

Other books on the same subject matter include The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I Kertzer, published in 1997. The book was adapted into a play by Pulitzer and Oscar winning playwright Alfred Uhry. Steven Spielberg also commenced production of a film based on Kertzer’s book, with a film script by Tony Kushner back in 2016. However, after open auditions held from across Jewish schools in Europe and America failed to identify a suitable boy to play the young Edgardo, plans for the movie stalled. Spielberg had already cast Mark Rylance as Pope Pius IX and Oscar Isaac as the older Edgardo Mortara.

A two-act opera Il caso Mortara (The Mortara Case) composed by Francesco Cilluffo with an Italian libretto premiered in New York in 2010. It was inspired by Kertzer’s book.

An earlier book by Rabbi Bertram Korn titled The American Reaction to the Morara Case: 1858-1859 was published in 1957. That book was more focused on public opinion in the United States and considered by Kertzer to contain incorrect details of the case.

In 2005, Vittorio Messori published an Italian-language version of Mortara’s unpublished Spanish memoirs which were made available in English since 2017. Titled Kidnapped by the Vatican? The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara understandably reignited the continuing debate on the case.

What eventually became of Edgardo Mortara?

In 1865, at the age of 13, Edgardo became a novice in the Canons Regular of the Lateran. He added the Pope’s name to his own to become Pio Edgardo Mortara. He apparently wrote repeatedly to his parents, trying to “convince them of the truth of the Catholic faith”. By 1870, just before he turned 19, Italian troops captured Rome. His father Momolo Mortara, preceded by Edgardo’s older brother Riccardo Mortara, followed the Italian Army into Rome hoping to find Edgardo and free him, which Edgardo instead saw as an attempt to kidnap him.

Edgardo was smuggled out of Rome by train, along with a priest in 1879, escaping to Austria and finding shelter in a convent of the Canons Regular in Austria. By 1872, he had moved to a monastery at Poitiers in France, where Edgardo’s welfare was regularly kept track of by Pope Pius IX through the local bishop. With special dispensation from the Pope, Edgardo Mortara was ordained as a priest, because at age 21 he was technically too young for ordination.

Father Mortara spend most of the rest of his life outside Italy, travelling through Europe and preaching. Reports say he was able to give sermons in six languages, including Basque, and read three more languages, including Hebrew.

Following his mother’s death in France in 1890, Father Pio Edgardo Mortara returned to Italy. In 1919, he sojourned in Rome where he visited the House of Catechumens he had entered 61 years prior. By then he had settled at the abbey of Canons Regular at Bouhay in Liege, Belgium and remained there until he died in March 1940, at the age of 88.

How faithful is this cinematic retelling of actual history?

According to an AI inquiry (via Perplexity) and its results, this Italian film accurately portrays the true story of the Mortara case, in which a Jewish boy was forcibly taken from his family by the Catholic Church in 1858. The film does not present the events as anti-Catholic propaganda, but rather as a historical account of a controversial and shocking incident that occurred during the papacy of Pius IX.

While the Mortara kidnapping may be seen as an isolated episode, it reflects the complex and often contentious relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community at the time. The film’s depiction of this true story is considered a faithful and unbiased representation of the events.

Official trailer

Other reviews


Francesto Cilluffo: Il caso Mortara (The Mortara Case)
(premiered in NYC in 2010)


Daniele Scalise: Il caso Mortara (published 1996)

David I Kertzer: The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (published 1997)

Vittorio Messori: Kidnapped by the Vatican? The Unpublished (Spanish) Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara (published in Italian 2005, then in English 2017)

Rabbi Bertram Korn: The American Reaction to the Morara Case: 1858-1859 (published 1957)

More info (Wikipedia)