Once upon a time, there was a city of fools…
Ciao Ragazzi Srl for Rai Fiction
A film by:
for Ciao Ragazzi
Lunapark Ediz. Musicali
There used to be the City of Fools, the nuthouse. A city filled with horrors. Strap-own cots, restraining jackets, electroshock treatments, nurse-wardens and patients-prisoners, sadistic relationships between doctors and patients. It wasn‘t a place to heal but a place for segregation, a place to hide the shame of the mentally ill. Up until 1960, no one had ever questioned mental institutions, no one had ever confronted the power of psychiatry. Not until a young small town rebel psychiatrist from Northern Italy who worked on the sidelines of the psychiatric world, lit the spark that turned into a fire: his name was Franco Basaglia.
Margherita is a beautiful and bubbly young woman. Her only problem is having a mother who’s eaten up by the guilt of having had her with an American soldier who left after the end of the war. She doesn’t speak about her sin but dumps the weight of her guilt on her daughter. And when the nuns from her school inform her that Margherita is a bit too vivacious, that she’s letting her hormonal impulses take over, she immediately has her interned in a psychiatric hospital. It only takes a couple of months for Margherita to lose her love of life. She becomes rebellious and aggressive, so much so that they lock her up like a wild beast.
Boris has come back from a terrible war and can no longer speak. The blank expression of his dark eyes speaks of the horrors he witnessed, his powerful body has been broken by the traumas. Boris has withdrawn: he doesn’t speak, he’s emotionless. But he’s scary. And that’s why their main concern is to contain him, not to help him. To control him with electroshock treatments and restraining jackets. Boris spends fifteen years of his life tied to a bed.
Furlan was a partisan, a kind married man with children. He chose to be interned. He wants to be able to get rid of his fear of being attacked and his alcoholism that’s destroying his body and his mind. He had no idea he was going to become a prisoner of the city of fools, where he’s fed through a funnel and undergoes horrific and life-threatening procedures. Instead of treating him they’re turning him into a vegetable.
Cicca- Cicca is a child even if he’s in his twenties. The hospital is the only world he knows. He’s withdrawn, scared. He’s so scared he’s constantly shaking and only knows how to act on his primal instincts.
Then there’s Nives, she’s not a patient she’s a nurse. She’s a good woman, an honest and hard-working mother. She’s been taught that mentally sick people aren’t people but things: they need to be washed, dressed, restrained and punished. And that’s what she does: she washes them, she feeds them, she punishes them. By treating human beings like this she slowly turns into an empty shell of a woman. Nives can’t see that the psychiatric hospital is a concentration camp that dehumanizes not only the sick but also their guardians.
These, and others, are the men and women Franco Basaglia meets when he becomes the director of Gorizia’s Psychiatric Hospital. A sideline job, not particularly demanding, with enough time on his hands to continue writing his own books while delegating responsibilities to the nurses and assistants, just like his predecessor did.
But both Basaglia and his wife Franca Ongaro – a courageous and well-educated woman from Venice’s high-bourgeoisie – are shocked by what they find. And they decide to change it.
They still don’t know how because psychiatric hospitals are the western worlds’ most repressive and established institutions. But something needs to be done, even at the risk of turning the political and cultural establishment against them.
This is how this extraordinary adventure starts off and brings Franco, his wife and a group of rebel young doctors to take apart the concentration camp of the city of fools. Something never attempted before, with twists and turns that often speak of failure. Under Basaglia’s administration, all restraining practices and electroshock treatments become obsolete. The gates are opened so that the patients can stroll through the park have their meals outside, they can even get a job. Special attention is given to the patients’ conditions and needs. Department and plenum meetings take place. Women and men are no longer separated and open spaces are set up.
A local administrator comes to visit the Gorizia Hospital and this is what he says: “It was a living hospital, you couldn’t tell the patients from the doctors, volunteers, nurses, it was difficult to understand who had which role. But most of all I saw how an intellectual like Basaglia was capable of understanding the patients’ most basic needs. He knew them all by name. They would walk into his office without an appointment, his door was always open, there was a lot of coming and going. His strolls in the park were all about stopping and talking with anyone and everyone.”
With these changes, Margherita, Boris , Cicca- Cicca and many others start living again. And their stories become an exciting and touching human voyage in which men and women who were supposed to spend their lives behind walls, slowly get a new life, a new job, a new home, a new love.
Inside this new hospital, Nives and the other nurses who initially are suspicious and querulous with the new director slowly acquire a new transformative awareness.
But the doctors and nurses who follow and support Basaglia in his battle, end up paying a high personal and existentialist price for their revolution: economical difficulties, family problems, break ups.
Every revolution leaves death and scars and innocent victims. Furlan’s wife will be killed by her husband during what seemed like a normal house visit. Because Basaglia had decided that patients can go visit their families so that they can slowly get reacquainted with daily life. For many it’s a healing process, for other – like Furlan in this case – it’s tragic. The kind of tragedy the press and Basaglia’s detractors are hoping in.
This will cause a breach in the Gorizia experiment. Franco goes through a period of self-doubt that comes to an end when Michele Zanetti, an illuminated Christian Democrat, offers him the direction of Trieste’s psychiatric Hospital.
Based on his previous experiment, Basaglia and his collaborators decide that this institution cannot be changed: it can only be made obsolete. Trieste’s Psychiatric Hospital is shut down. There’s no room for compromise or delay, they have to work hard and knock down the walls so that they can rebuilt a new framework for the community.
This are exciting and productive times. The news travel from Trieste into the world and volunteers spill in from all over. Young British, Swedish, Norwegian doctors, American and French Psychiatrists. A multinational community supports Basaglia. They’re there to build a new institution that is a far cry from the dismal walls of old psychiatric wards.
It will take years for the psychiatrist from Venice to see the fruits of his hard work: May 13, 1978, the Parliament approves Article 180 for the national Psychiatric Reform which declares Psychiatric Hospitals obsolete and have to be be shut down. It’s a victory and Basaglia surprisingly gives a fair warning: article 180 isn’t the culmination of their work but a starting point. Basaglia believes that the new psychiatry needs to go beyond the closing of mental institutions and deal must with the causes that can lead to mental insanity: poverty, homelessness, addictions, and discrimination.
During this period of time, Boris goes through defeats and disappointments and comes out the other side by finding his artistic and working place in society. Nives divorces her husband and
volunteers in the new therapeutic community, taking care of those with mental problems.
Margherita lives outside hospital walls and after many difficulties has managed to have a beautiful baby boy. She’s free and happy.
Basaglia won’t be able to finish his work: he will die prematurely of a brain tumor.
But the other characters of this story, both patients and nurses, will finally be in control of their own lives. They’re the living testament of Franco Basaglia’s hard work.