Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti most recently skewered religion with “We Have a Pope,” but for his latest feature “Mia Madre” he returns to the arena of family drama for the first time since “The Son’s Room.” That movie dealt with a couple mourning the death of their son; this time, Moretti confronts the loss of one’s mother. Very much like the film’s central character, a film director bogged down by her latest film while her mother is dying, Moretti proves unable to face the situation head-on. Though no longer casting himself in a prominent leading role, Moretti has clearly made another personal work, though this time the results are decidedly mixed.
“Mia Madre” follows Margherita (Margherita Buy) as she struggles through her latest project, a trite social drama about workers occupying a factory. Overcome by grief and lack of preparation when faced with her mother’s deadly state, Margherita slowly descends into a spiral of insecurity and emotional turmoil both on and off set. She seems less and less convinced by the course her own film has taken, doubting every movement on set, every word from her assistant, and ultimately trusting no one — not even herself.
The same inability to comprehend and manage her own work is to be found in the hospital room where her mother receives care. Her brother Giovanni (Moretti), by contrast, displays more confidence as he cares for the ailing woman, having made peace with her inevitable demise. But Giovanni puts her sister in an even more uncomfortable position by passively highlighting her inadequate coping skills.
Things don’t get any rosier when nutty aspiring Hollywood bigwig Barry Huggins (John Turturro) arrives on the set of Margherita’s film to play the factory’s boss. The confusion that had reigned on set until then lands a delirious twist courtesy of Barry’s larger-than-life attitude, his propensity towards not remembering his lines and making up stories. Perpetually switching from English to Italian, and from serious moments to hilarious outbursts, Turturro’s character brings welcome levity to the otherwise morose proceedings.
For Barry, a night out with the producer and Margherita becomes the occasion to flaunt his stereotypical love for the Italian capital and the ghosts of cinema roaming its streets. With the help of alcohol, he launches into a tirade about a new film he has in mind and dreams up a story about working with Stanley Kubrick.
Margherita’s emotional faculties keep on wavering above the abyss of pain as nightmares, more or less pleasant memories and hallucinations are incoherently woven into the narrative. Even her young daughter displays more readiness to deal with her grandmother’s illness. Moretti couldn’t make it clearer that Margherita’s inability to make sense of her mother’s imminent death reflects greater insecurities pertaining to other aspects of her life.
Is it because she has spent her whole life thinking only about her career? Is it because when all that matters is just your own beautiful self then other people’s lives are just a nuisance? That may in fact be the case, as a former lover pedantically tells her, but the script fails to render all of the above in any meaningful or convincing way. Margherita’s exaggerated reactions to her mother’s worsening situation are at times unwarranted. At one point, having learned that her driving license has expired, she destroys her mother’s car. In an attempt to energize the film with too many narrative devices, the plot veers away from its central dramatic conflict.
Margherita’s failure to elaborate on her grief is mirrored in Moretti’s failure to construct a coherent film where the spectator can find a way into its meaning, rather than being caught in a confused web of suggestions, half-baked ideas and circular exposition. The mediocre film Margherita is working on ends up reminiscing the equally disappointing film Moretti has made.
“Mia Madre” premieres this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently released in Italy and seeking U.S. distribution.