A young couple takes an apartment in a quiet Rome neighborhood. They appear to be married, but they're not. With two men, they build a secret room behind a wall-length bookshelf. Several days later, they bring home a large wooden crate.
It's March 16, 1978. Inside the crate is former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro.
''Good Morning, Night" is an attempt to imagine exactly what happened after Moro (played by Roberto Herlitzka) was kidnapped by Red Brigade terrorists and before his bullet-riddled body was discovered in the trunk of a red Renault eight weeks later. The event remains a watershed in Italian history: Moro, the conservative leader of the ruling Christian Democratic party, was forging an alliance with his country's Communist wing, a union his death was meant to destroy and did. (The leftists were afraid their party leaders were selling out.)
Because the filmmaker is Marco Bellocchio, whose early movies (''Fist in the Pocket," ''Devil in the Flesh") scandalized audiences and whose more recent work (''My Mother's Smile") has ached with weary poetry, ''Good Morning, Night" is more interested in people than in politics. The four chief conspirators are seen as youthful, serious, and utterly divorced from reality. As they watch the public's horrified reactions to the kidnapping on TV, one of them wonders, ''Why aren't they rebelling?"
The group's leader is the doctrinaire Mariano (Luigi Lo Cascio, standing in for the real-life brigista Mario Moretti), but Bellocchio puts us mostly in the shoes of Chiara (Maya Sansa, ''Best of Youth"), who has kept her day job at a ministry library so as to report back on outside events. By night she cooks for the others and hovers near the peephole that looks into Moro's cell. ''I want to reassure myself it's not a dream," she insists, but really she's drawn to Moro's humanity -- to a human-ness that destroys all ideology.
Bellocchio repeatedly frames Moro's head through that peephole, iris-style, and the visual device gradually becomes intensely moving. It nods to D.W. Griffith and silent cinema at the same time it focuses Chiara's attention on the captive's dignity. The kidnapped Moro was as much a pawn of the right as of the left. When Pope John Paul I decreed that there should be no conditions attached to Moro's release, he condemned Moro to death as surely as the Red Brigade did. Bellocchio understands this, and so does Bellocchio's imagined Moro. ''I'll be the fool they use to annihilate you," he tells the uncomprehending Mariano.
''Good Morning, Night" takes its title from an Emily Dickinson poem (''Good morning -- Midnight/I'm coming home"), and its struggle to contain opposing forces takes place mostly in Chiara's head. Bellocchio dramatizes this more deftly in some scenes than others. When Chiara goes on a family picnic with relatives who are aging anti-fascist partisans, singing the old Communist marching songs with gusto, a viewer glimpses the urgent wellsprings from whence all ideology flows. World War II-era footage of partisan executions and Soviet iconography (including a glimpse of happy Joe Stalin himself) hint at the tape-loops that play through the conspirators' heads.
On the other hand, the use of Pink Floyd's ''Shine On, You Crazy Diamond" and ''The Great Gig in the Sky" to underscore Chiara's crisis of conscience is merely jarring -- period-appropriate, perhaps, but you feel you've wandered into a laser-rock show. Also awkward is Bellocchio's attempt to shoehorn himself into the proceedings in the person of a naive young writer named Enzo (Paolo Briguglia) who tries to woo Chiara with a screenplay about the very events we're watching.
The strength of ''Good Morning, Night" is not in winking meta-drama but in a clear-eyed, restorative realism that's occasionally broken by quiet flights of fancy. One such touch is an image of the captive politician magically freed and walking back toward the country he was trying to heal. Aldo Moro haunts this movie like a courtly rebuke, just as what might have been haunts Italy's very self.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.