REVIEW: The Philosophy of Loss; Moretti Returns with "The Son's Room"
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/02.01.02) -- Nanni Moretti's "The Son's Room" opens with a sequence that is hardly out of the ordinary for the writer-director-producer-actor-film exhibitor. We see Moretti, this time playing Giovanni (the latest in a string of thinly-veiled on-screen alter-egos, this time making use of Moretti's real first name), a psychiatrist in the Italian port town of Ancona, as he takes his morning jog through the city. He stops for coffee and finds his attention caught by a passing entourage of Hare Krishnas, which no one else seems to notice. He steps outside and briefly joins in their procession, humming their mantra all the way home. But the scene isn't played for laughs. Rather, it's about all the strange and wondrous sights to be glimpsed in the everyday, if only you keep your eyes open.
That act of noticing, of awareness to self and to one's environs, is a key tenet of Moretti's cinema, which seems less a grouping of nine features over 25 years than one long, evolving excursion into Moretti's philosophies about how best to live one's life. (Moretti's debut, made when he was only 23, was the fittingly titled Super-8mm opus, "I am Self-Sufficient.") Taken individually, the films don't always seem that remarkable, but viewed collectively (as was possible last year during the American Cinematheque's complete Moretti retrospective), the films envelop you with an impassioned articulation of a series of beliefs. Political awareness bordering on radicalism; a deep-set resistance to authority; a devotion to family; a fervency for athleticism -- I could be talking about Moretti or the films themselves, for so indistinguishable is the one from the other. And while Moretti's films have been derided by some as arrogant and condescending, what is really imparted is a sense of all the good that can come from taking life head-on, taking nothing in moderation. (For a thorough analysis of Moretti's work, see Deborah Young's excellent article in the current "Film Comment.")
"The Son's Room" is only the second of Moretti's films, following 1999's "Aprile," in which he has appeared on-screen as a father. But parenthood is a natural fit for a man so resolutely in charge, so eager to mold others in his image. (It's as though having spent sufficient time raising us, the audience, from infancy, Moretti can now turn his attention to a real/reel family without us feeling betrayed.) Here, he is the father of two teenagers -- a son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) and a daughter, Irene (Jasmine Trinca). Their mother (and Giovanni's wife), Paola, is played, appropriately, by Moretti's longtime screen partner, Laura Morante. But no sooner has Moretti given himself the pleasure of child-rearing than he takes it away, for "The Son's Room" is a film about the loss of Andrea and the way in which the surviving family members cope in the aftermath. It is a movie in which the grieving comes slowly, quietly, and it is the film in which Moretti has allowed himself to seem the most human and vulnerable.
On a Sunday morning like any other, the family sits around the table, enjoying breakfast. Then, an unexpected call -- an emergency has come up concerning one of Giovanni's patients and he must drive to the man's home to meet with him. That jog, the one Andrea and Giovanni were going to take after breakfast, will have to wait. What follows is a delicate roundelay of images, accompanied by minimal dialogue and the strains of Nicola Piovani's lovely score: Making his way up the winding road to his patient's home, Giovanni turns to look at a map and is nearly sideswiped by an oncoming truck; Riding, doubled-up on a scooter, Irene weaves in and out of traffic; Shopping in an open market, Paola witnesses a mugging that could just as easily have been her; Fully equipped with the appropriate gear, Andrea sets out to go scuba-diving with friends. Together, these fragments form a delicate tone poem about fate's glance, how it is always upon us and how, eventually, we lock eyes.
It is, of course, Andrea who does not return home that Sunday afternoon, and whose absence ruptures the blissful idealism of the first part of the film. But that transformation is not given to us as the porcelain, white-elephant symbol we have come to expect from Hollywood in the post-"Ordinary People" age (or even post-"In the Bedroom"). Moretti's film is not about a family that needs tragedy in order to wake itself up from some emotional haze or other dysfunction. Rather, it's about a family, and a father in particular, forced to confront the fact that happiness is not enough to ward off the vagaries of chance. (This is the one aspect of the film that seemed more resonant when I viewed it again, post-Sept. 11.)
In the early moments of "The Son's Room," Moretti dedicates lots of subtle, background action to showing us the ways in which Giovanni's kids take after their father, the ways in which they don't, and the way in which this behavior alternately confounds Giovanni and suffuses him with pride. In turn, Andrea's death is not only an occasion for grief, but for Giovanni's (and Moretti's) reevaluation of his strictly rational approach to an irrational world. Much more than just another film about loss, "The Son's Room" is about all the humbling virtues of parenthood, and the ability of children to upend our most resolute dogma.
There are understandable reasons to be suspicious of "The Son's Room." It is, after all, the umpteenth film in the last twelve months to deal with parents coping with the loss of a child. And it is the latest Italian auteur film to be repackaged by Miramax for American consumption. But rest assured, the feelings in Moretti's film are real and deep, and Moretti himself is not about to be transformed, Benigni-style, into a leprechaun leaping over Steven Spielberg's head en route to the Oscar stage (no matter that "The Son's Room" is Italy's official submission for this year's foreign-language award). All of which may explain why Miramax decided to release "The Son's Room" in the doldrums of January, and put all its marketing muscle behind that other movie about a grieving family instead.