For Italian writer-filmmaker and national cinema mainstay Nanni Moretti — a veteran whose first film dates back to 1976 and whose 2001 drama, “A Son’s Room,” took the Palme D’Or at Cannes — the familiarity of his themes and fascinations may be a balm to some, but is also possibly verging on the tiresome. In “A Brighter Tomorrow,” Moretti once again stars as a version of himself — playing a character called Giovanni, his own full name — as an aging, curmudgeonly film director in contemporary Italy attempting to make a new film and scuppered at every turn by an untrustworthy financier (Mathieu Almaric), an unhappy wife of forty years (Margherita Buy, another frequent Moretti collaborator) and a combative cast.
The film-within-a-film that Giovanni is making is a parable about the Italian Communist Party circa 1956, and the fraught decision of a couple of L’Unita newspaper journalists to either remain loyal to their Soviet masters or to break with them for their oppressive crushing of the Hungarian uprising. A Hungarian circus comes to town and the two journalists are divided on what they should do. A story about “the end of everything,” as one producer depressingly puts it, this is a film from a veteran filmmaker who is sick and tired of modern cinema and the capitalist vulgarity that surrounds it.
What follows in “A Brighter Tomorrow” is likable and not totally without merit. Giovanni is an artist and husband who is set in his ways and determined to stick to a model for cinema, life, and politics which follows his artistic and moral principles — not shooting violence for mere entertainment, for instance, as he muses at length about Kielowski’s “A Short Film About Killing,” or making films which express the communist struggle so close to his heart.
Meanwhile, Giovanni’s wife and creative partner Paola is exhausted by his stubbornness and unwillingness to listen to her; he says he needs her, but she retorts that actually she is just useful to him. Behind his back, she sees a psychoanalyst and makes plans to leave him, but even when she does, she is unusually friendly and helpful to Giovanni in his work. Their relationship seems something of an afterthought, even as Moretti appears to at least try to address gender dynamics in these types of marital situations.
Forced by circumstances to examine his approach to filmmaking and to his intrapersonal relationships, Giovanni ultimately decides to alter the outcome of his film, which had originally been written as a suicide.
Filmmaking, life, politics: Moretti’s projects share much of this common interest and free-flowing, often unstructured DNA while varying considerably in their overall impact. His 2015 film “Mia Madre” was a similarly personal story, featuring the director-as-actor and telling another meta tale of filmmaking and its vagaries. This inwardness can volley between insightful and painfully navel-gazing, giving “A Brighter Tomorrow” an unsteady quality. A highlight comes in the pointedly funny scene of a Netflix meeting that Giovanni and Paola take when their funding has stalled: the executives repeat numbers to them like robots and insist on the film having at least one “what the fuck moment.”
Yet for every engaging character-driven moment or bit of warm humor (Giovanni angrily shouting “I’m going to call Martin Scorsese” certainly got the audience in Cannes laughing), there’s unearned, even irritating quirkiness. The tendency for the cast and crew of the film to break into fantastical song and dance — or Moretti’s formal decisions, including abrupt last-minute flashbacks — simply don’t fit into the flow of the narrative or tone.
It’s true that “A Brighter Tomorrow” takes on, at times pretty convincingly, the protagonist’s own creative and personal blinders, offering a critique of the principled but often-blind male auteur’s own arrogance can suffocate those around him. In one scene late in the film, as Giovanni suggests he needs a different conclusion for his project after deciding against a more downbeat one, there’s an enthusiastic rushing forth of ideas and cross-talk between his producers, family, cast, and estranged wife. Giovanni looks around beatifically at their cheerful demeanors, realizing, presumably, that he so rarely asks their thoughts that they are thrilled to contribute. This more effective — and optimistic — spirit of collaboration drives both the new chosen conclusion for the film and, as the title implies, one that is more of a piece with the communist ideals Giovanni’s characters espouse.
Solidarity and humanity in the face of cynicism is laudable, undoubtedly. But it’s difficult to remain absorbed in the material at hand given Moretti’s somewhat clumsy swapping between present-day logistics of a film production, the film-within-a-film of 1956, and the random, irritating bursts into song (see: Giovanni in a car, histrionically singing Aretha Franklin). The results are frustrating and lessen the overall impact of the film, which has its heart in the right place, even if that place often feels stuck in the past.
“A Brighter Tomorrow” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.