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Nanni Moretti and John Turturro Talk Catharsis and Finding the Comedy in Trauma for ‘Mia Madre’

Nanni Moretti and John Turturro Talk Catharsis and Finding the Comedy in Trauma for 'Mia Madre'

WATCH: First Trailer For Nanni Moretti’s ‘Mia Madre’ Starring Margherita Buy & John Turturro

Nanni Moretti’s latest film, “Mia Madre,” played for critics at the New York Film Festival on September 25, where it received a warm response from the crowd at the Walter Reade Theater. The film hits strong notes of both comedy and drama as it tells the story of Margherita, a film director whose mother falls ill during the middle of a particularly challenging film shoot. John Turturro plays Barry Huggins, an American actor whose egotism and inability to remember his lines, nevermind pronounce them properly in Italian, causes him to clash with Margherita on set throughout the film. After the screening, Turturro and Moretti gave a press conference in which they spoke about the making of the film and the roots of this intimate tragicomedy.

From the beginning, Moretti was clear that this film was born out of personal experience, when during the editing of his last film, “We Have a Pope,” his own mother got sick and passed away. This led the director to write his own script about the trauma of illness and death on top of the already overwhelming process of putting a film together. Moretti appears in the film as Giovanni, but the character of Margherita (played by Margherita Buy) is the stand-in for himself. “Since the beginning it was a female director, a female character, and Margherita Buy was the first choice,” he said regarding the casting. “It was more interesting to me to tell the story through a female character… I am more like Margherita than Giovanni. Giovanni is the character I want to be, but I’m not.”

Turturro brings frequent laughs throughout the film as he turns Huggins into a brilliant stereotype of Hollywood arrogance. The character is Margherita’s main antagonist but was still an audience favorite, providing most of the comedy through his larger-than-life persona. Turturro spoke about Moretti giving him room to improvise on set. “Well, ‘la sceneggiatura et bellissima,'” Turturro said, using the Italian language he primarily uses in the film, “the script was beautiful, but Nanni encouraged us – well, encouraged me – to try different things.” One especially hilarious scene he brought up is one where Huggins struggles to deliver his lines while driving a car too covered in cameras to see properly. In this scene, the challenges for Turturro were the same as those for his character: “I don’t drive a shift. So I’m driving a shift, I couldn’t really see, and I’m speaking Italian. So I was acting, but not really.”

These comedic moments, which had audiences laughing out loud, are a striking juxtaposition to the melodrama in Margherita’s family life as she wrestles through these frustrating moments on set only to face a harder struggle at home. Moretti spoke about striking this tragicomic balance in the script, saying, “Many years ago I’d make only dramatic movies or only comedic movies. Since then I make movies where both the aspects are present.” This was the best way he’s found to tell stories, he said, after all, “Life is made up of the two aspects.”

Throughout the film, Margherita’s character tells her actors to remember to “stand beside the character” in the scene, a direction few seem to understand. When asked about this line, Moretti said it’s not something he’s actually said to actors, but one he often thinks about. “I don’t like those interpretations when an actor transforms into a character so much that they disappear as a person,” he explained. “I’m agreeing with Margherita on that one.” Turturro took a moment to theorize about what he called “the dilemma of acting,” wondering, “If you disappear are you showing more of yourself through your disappearance? Or are you just disappearing and not using those parts of yourself?”
Ultimately, both Turturro and Moretti’s authorial voices shine through in the final product, with Turturro’s performance giving a distinct flavor to Moretti’s richly personal script. In addition to being an exercise in catharsis for the writer-director, “Mia Madre” is an excellent showcase of both their talents.

The film will screen again on September 28 at Lincoln Center as a part of NYFF. 

READ MORE: Indiewire’s Cannes Review of “Mia Madre”

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