'Mia Madre': Film Review

Mia Madre Still 2 - H 2015
Courtesy of Guidi Locurcio

Mia Madre Still 2 - H 2015

Good, strong, understated filmmaking is enlivened by Moretti’s characteristic wry blend of drama and humor.

Margherita Buy plays a filmmaker and John Turturro her leading man in Nanni Moretti’s quiet dramedy.

Mia Madre, Nanni Moretti’s film about a director shooting a film while her mother is dying in the hospital, shows the Italian filmmaker in a serious, subdued mood, but is enlivened by the absurd comic clash between protag Margherita Buy and her lead actor John Turturro. Setting aside the scornful exuberance of his influential Berlusconi put-down The Caiman and the Vatican fantasy Habemus Papam, he returns full circle to the autobiographical territory of his earlier work. Though it isn’t moving or cathartic in the same way as The Son’s Room, the story about the loss of an adolescent son which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2001, the films share an absorbing intimacy in recounting a family drama in all its hues and nuances. But this isn’t that kind of straight drama, and the characters are not explored in that kind of depth. Simplicity and maturity of vision are the virtues here, good qualities but perhaps a little too understated for major attention-grabbing. Distributor 01 is releasing wide in Italy today, while there is still some suspense about the film’s bow in Cannes.

Though the three-handed screenplay casts a woman in the main role of the short-tempered, self-absorbed, anxiety-ridden filmmaker, this is flimsy masking for a story close to home. Moretti lost his own mother while shooting Habemus Papam, and that’s the obvious autobiographical angle. But on another level, it’s a clever reflection on the artist’s inability to separate her private life from her work. Try as she may to play the hard-nosed pro on set, Margherita (Buy) is swept up in the emotional turmoil of moving out of her boyfriend’s apartment and dealing with a teenage daughter and a hospitalized mom. All this inevitably boils over into the political film she’s making about factory workers at odds with management. If there is any arc or forward movement here, it regards her increasing inability to isolate her film from her private life.

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Similarly, her brother Giovanni finds he is no longer interested in his cushy job at an engineering firm, and for better or worse lets himself be engulfed by his mother’s last days. In this un-flashy supporting role, Moretti appears sagely mournful and resigned, if a little one-note. Perhaps he is “standing to one side of his character,” Margherita’s mysterious instructions to her puzzled actors, which becomes a repeated joke in the film. This apparently means that the actor should be both inside a part and at the same time reveal it as play-acting — a comic contradiction that shows Moretti the director exercising some self-irony.  

A certain familiarity with his previous work is presumed, and Margherita clearly carries on the line of his film alter egos. Veteran actress Buy, working with Moretti for the third time, does an excellent job imitating her director’s on-set fits, like a scene in which she flies into a rage with her assistants for following her orders too closely. His noted political inclinations are sent up in the rhetorical anti-capitalist movie she is making that looks like something out of 1968. “It’s a film full of energy and hope,” she defensively tells her skeptical mother Ada (stage actress Giulia Lazzarini) when she goes to visit her in the hospital. Though elderly and frail, former school teacher Ada still shows intelligence and discrimination. Beloved by her students and doted on by her grown children, she appears to have lived a full and satisfying life, and there is nothing morbid or maudlin about her illness.

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That leaves room for a lot of comic interludes, and the film effortlessly swings between the Margherita and Giovanni’s anxiety at their encroaching bereavement, and the quietly madcap enterprise of filmmaking. The key player in this regard is Turturro in the role of American star Barry Huggins. Margherita finds him asleep at the airport, waiting for someone to pick him up. Startled awake, he tells her about his nightmare that Kevin Spacey was trying to kill him. Almost every scene with him is a treat — and a reprieve from long, repetitive vigils at the hospital. A classic is his acting on a camera car; after Margherita finds it too fake, she forces him to really drive a car down the street with his view completely blocked by lights and cameras.

Cast as the evil new factory owner who intends to carry out mass firings, Turturro plays along gamely, delivering a delightful piece of over-the-top business with a touching coda.  

Made for a reported $7.5 million, the Italo-French co-prod reflects the laid-back, unassuming quality of its story. Arnaldo Catinari's spacious cinematography conveys a feeling of airy simplicity without unnecessary complications. No composer is credited, but the music choices are modernly unpredictable, from Nino Rota and Arvo Part to Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass.

Production companies: Sacher Film, Fandango, Le Pacte
Cast: Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Giulia Lazzarini, Nanni Moretti, Beatrice Mancini, Stefano Abbati, Enrico Ianniello
Director: Nanni Moretti
Screenwriters: Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Valia Santella
Producers: Nanni Moretti, Domenico Procacci
Coproducer: Olivier Pere
Director of photography: Arnaldo Catinari

Production designer: Paola Bizzarri
Costume designer: Valentina Taviani
Editor: Clelio Benevento
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 106 minutes