Over the course of Nanni Moretti’s career, there have been two separate yet related strands to his body of work: on the one hand, a highly self-referential attention to the processes of film-making that have often made his releases feel like documentaries or metacommentaries more than sustained fictional narratives; on the other hand, a taste for what might loosely be termed family dramas, albeit family dramas that are shorn of anything resembling direct or overt drama, even or especially when they revolve around the kinds of tragedy at the heart of The Son’s Room. To both its detriment and its credit, Mia Madre blends both into a single experience, presenting us with two experiences that never quite gel, even if their incongruity produces some of the most pregnant and beautiful moments in his career.
Both elements revolve around the central character of Margherita (Margherita Buy), with the first largely focusing on her career and the second focusing on her family life. In terms of her career, Margherita is working on an Italian film about strikes, working conditions and European precarity, a process that requires her to negotiate her ongoing rapport with her ex-lover, who plays one of the key characters, as well as the demands of Barry Huggins (John Turturro), a Hollywood actor who is flown over to play the role of the factory owner but can’t seem to remember a single line, despite regaling Margherita with one story after another about his supposed Hollywood conquests. In terms of her family life, Margherita is coming to terms with the impending death of her mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), who has been hospitalised with a heart condition, a process that also involves her brother, Giovanni (played by Moretti himself) as well as her own daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini).
For me, the second part of the film was the most compelling, and a beautiful example of the supreme gentleness that Moretti is capable of exuding when he turns his attention to families in crisis. Although most of this story takes place at Ada’s hospital bedside, and she does eventually pass away, there’s never any sense that the film is milking the situation for melodramatic or exploitative purposes. Instead, Moretti does a beautiful job of capturing how life simply goes on even in the midst of illness, as well as the way in which illness can still leave all the small moments of joy and little instances of communion upon which families subsist intact. Indeed, one of the most original things about the film is that these three women – grandmother, mother, daughter – don’t have any real demons or unfinished business but instead a robust and enduring love for one another than is neither diminished nor intensified by Ada’s illness, but instead always manages to find a way around the situation within which it finds itself. In that sense, the film often plays as a tribute to the great flexibility and improvisational ingenuity of the love that exists between mothers and daughters, as well as the small, quotidian, day-to-day moments that make it happen in the first place.
In many ways, this diffuse radiance was what I wanted from the entire film, and to some extent the workplace sequences contribute to it as well, with some of the best scenes simply witnessing Margherita wandering around the factory set as she attempts to process and sort out her feelings about her mother’s deteriorating condition, just as the transitions between her personal and professional life often seem designed to subsume her directing career into the same luminous dreaminess that surrounds the scenes in the hospital. It is this half-waking quality that allows Moretti to include so many dream-sequences without it ever feeling as if he is resorting to a hackneyed device, since it never fully feels as if Margherita has settled between her real and fictional worlds, just as the dream-sequences themselves often feel like her imagining how she might actually shoot and stage her feelings as much as actual dreams, which is presumably why Moretti quickly does away with any framing devices of falling asleep or waking up and just allows these surreal interludes to hover, free-floating, at the juncture – or as the juncture – between the two different components of the film.
That liquid interface between waking and dreaming life was also what made The Son’s Room so pregnant and here – as there – it’s facilitated by a series of mellifluous English pop standards, most beautifully in a sequence in which Margherita wanders down an endless cinema queue populated by friends, family and lovers accompanied by Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” In The Son’s Room, the key sequences were scored to Brian Eno’s “By This River” – it was where I heard of Brian Eno in the first place – and while the sense of watery ambience may not be quite as immersive here, there’s still a fluidity that Moretti hasn’t quite managed to recapture since that 2001 masterpiece. While this is not an overtly political film, there is a nice synergy between Margherita’s gentle drift from one vaguely alarming part of her life to the next and the general backdrop of the factory set. In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant reminds us that one of the key characteristics of precarity as a social condition is that it is incoherent in terms of class affiliations, converging people of all socioeconomic and professional backgrounds around an escalating – if often residual – sense of anxiety and anomie. That residual quality of precarity is very much the case here, with the strike sequences and frenetic shooting schedules seeming to expose some disruptive energy that is always absorbed back into the gentleness – albeit the slightly edgy gentleness – of the family drama.
It feels somewhat disjunctive, then, when John Tuturro’s character, Barry Huggins, arrives, since all of a sudden the film launches into a highly extroverted, plastic, metafictive commentary on the distinction between film and life, as well as the difference between European and American cinema. At the same time, it feels designed to be disjunctive, as Moretti offers something like an aesthetic of alienation drawn from the Italian New Wave in order to encourage us – obliquely – to delve beneath the surface of his more palatable family drama to examine some of the political and social undercurrents that are almost always sent underground in this particular brand of arthouse European cinema. While I admired that gesture, I must say that I thought that all that interrogation was already there in the peculiar gentleness and strange ambience of the family drama itself, which I increasingly found myself wishing was the sole focus of the film, as it had been in The Son’s Room. There, as here, Moretti managed to create a family drama that was devoid of most of the typical hallmarks of family drama – romance, marriage, childbirth, separation – to instead paint a picture of a sustained and loving family unit as it gradually shifted and recalibrated to envisage the loss of one of its own. That same beautiful sense of slippage and reconfiguration is on display here as well, except that fifteen years later the family feels like even more of a bulwark against precarity, even or especially as those forces are never named, articulated or identified in any direct way.
At the same time, cinema has definitively entered its post-classical, digital phase in ways that were only glimpsed in 2001, let alone during the 1980s, which is when Moretti’s metafictive devices were at their most anarchic and extravagant, temporarily turning him into a kind of counterpart to Roberto Beningni in terms of sheer slapstick energy. In 2016, his continual shots of shots being constructed and the elaborately and artificially placed filming equipment has the effect of collapsing the film back into the distant theatrical past rather than anticipating the post-cinematic future that seems to linger on the horizon of so many New Wave ventures. For that reason, the film often unfolds as a play, which is perhaps why it is most convincing in small spaces with some kind of personal resonance for the characters – most pervasively the hospital bed, but perhaps most beautifully Ada’s apartment, where Margherita and Livia stay over the course of the second and third acts. In one wonderful scene, they come across a collection of takeout menus that Ada presumably uses regularly, and this little previously unknown detail from her life works beautifully to capture the way in which the relationship between these three women continues to grow even across the short space of time that we have with them, and that they have remaining with each other.
As a result, it often feels as if John Turturro is as out of place in Mia Madre as his character is in Margherita’s film, which certainly adds to the disjunctive feeling of it all but also becomes a little grating at times as well, especially since Turturro is in full Coen Brothers mode here, amping up every phrase until his performance plays more as an extended act of physical comedy than a living, breathing character. In and around the factory scenes, that makes a certain kind of sense, where he stands in for the financial forces controlling the production, but outside it’s a bit hit or miss, especially because the script moves in and out of Italian and English in quite sudden and jarring ways. When his comic presence does work, it tends to be in the midst of conversations – often three-way conversations with Margherita and a third party – where his increasingly raucous and preposterous anecdotes effect something like a perfect combination of slapstick and screwball. Always talking at cross-purposes with everyone around him but also managing to renew a sense of direct contact through physical camaraderie – a very Italian combination, at least in Moretti’s universe – he manages to gather everyone into his energy even or especially as they know better, making for a couple of sequences that are utterly delightful to watch.
It’s at these moments, too, that you really see why Nanni Moretti has so often been dubbed the Italian Woody Allen, since the combination of conversation and gesticulation quickly reaches a point at which everyone is merged in a neurotic, extroverted mess that somehow manages to be mesmerising despite the madness, even or especially as it takes place against the backdrop of a relatively staid and sombre film. With Fading Gigolo, Turturro provided Allen with his first role in another director’s film since 2000, and it often feels as if Turturro is channelling his own neurotic version of Allen here, particularly in his anecdotes about his celebrity friends and acquaintances, all of which are so pointedly bombastic and ludicrous that they already contain the seed of their own self-deprecating deflation. It’s a performance that necessarily takes some of the spotlight away from Moretti’s own presence as Giovanni and, combined with the fact that Moretti is not playing the film expert (as occurred earlier in his career), makes for quite a sweet and self-effacing performance that creeps up on you by surprise in the last few scenes of the film. For a director like Moretti whose films were already mellow and autumnal, in part, from their very inception, it was always going to be difficult to pinpoint a moment at which late work crept in, but Mia Madre is probably as good a point as any, as it luxuriates in the gentle touch of a director contemplating one of the most understated and underrated bodies of work in contemporary European cinema.