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Controindicazione: Society's madness projected on prison walls


- Serbian director Tamara von Steiner's second feature-length documentary looks at Europe's last prison hospital for the criminally insane

Controindicazione: Society's madness projected on prison walls
(© Aleksandar Mijailovic)

There is one last prison hospital for the criminally insane left in Europe, located in the town of Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, in Sicily. According to Italian penal law, people who have committed a criminal act in a state of unac­countability (whether due to a mental disorder or intoxication) and represent a threat to society are incarcerated in this institution. Here, they are sen­tenced to the legally prescribed minimum stretch of no less than two years, after which the sentence can be repeated over 30 times.

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Serbian filmmaker Tamara von Steiner's second feature-length film, Controindicazione, which had its international premiere at the Trieste Film Festival, is an observational documentary set in this prison hospital. After the narrative introduction and a short scene in which the warden complains to a couple of officials that out of 150 inmates, only 50 are actually dangerous, and the rest are (still) there due to inertia, red tape and society's lack of interest in their fates, von Steiner enters the prison and shows us its inhabitants. 

One of the first images is shocking and decidedly impressionistic: the director's camera is trained on one of the inmates, who seems to be having an epileptic seizure. But something is not right. The camera lingers on him for almost too long, until we realise that the man is actually pretending to have a fit, and our instinct to cry exploitation dissipates. His behaviour is, however clumsy, just a cry for help and attention. And when you see the doctor prescribing medicine to patients, you will see why. This bureaucrat does not even look at the men in his office. He just threatens to give them a negative report before their next sentence if they refuse to take the drugs. Or, when they ask about when their sentence might end, he tells them to ask the warden.

Of course, the warden will tell them that it depends on the doctor's evaluation. It is a vicious circle that none of the inmates can escape from, whether they are actually dangerous and suffering from mental disabilities, or are medically normal, but have been brought to a state close to lunacy by years of constant medication and the fact that some of them spend decades in the institution because of the cruelty of the penal law.

Add to this situation the authorities' idea that an appropriate form of entertainment for this slice of the population in a country where “mystical delirium” has an undeniable presence is an Easter theatre show revolving around Christ's death and resurrection, and you end up with a powerful picture that condemns not only this particular institution and law, but the self-professed “enlightened” society that conveniently forgets about its darkest and least humane decisions.

Controindicazione is a co-production by Serbia's Nin Film and Cinnamon Production.

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