Mia Madre, Nanni Moretti’s latest film, tells the story of Marguerita (Marguerita Buy), a filmmaker in the middle of making a political drama about a factory strike. She’s dealing with her mother’s failing health and other personal relationships. The film is reportedly based on Moretti’s experiences with dealing with the death of a loved one while making We Have a Pope. So, in essence, Marguerita is something of a Moretti stand-in but the character has shades that wouldn’t quite fit if Moretti played the role, and allows for new wrinkles to Moretti’s cinema (three generations of women). Instead, Moretti settles for a supporting role as Marguerita’s brother, who seems to have abandoned his job in order to care for their mother. His scenes and performance act as counterpoint to the work/life balance difficulties of Marguerita. Mia Madre finds Moretti in European Master mode with measured compositions, Arvo Pärt strings and a general tastefulness that makes the whole project somewhat bland. And yet it remains of interest.
And, although Mia Madre is a less eccentric vision, it’s still a product of the same intelligence, expressing the same concerns and attitudes that have been present in Moretti’s cinema for the last 40 years. At its heart, Moretti’s cinema is a personal one, and each of his films always seems like a State of the Moretti Union: this is what the world looks like to me in 2015 (Aprile literally finds Moretti reacting to news on TV and political events). Sometimes they deal with politics, sometimes they deal with autobiographical concerns – often, they deal with both. What connects them is the style: a loose, slippery thing helped by swift, nimble editing that opens itself up to dreams, flights of fancy, introspection, social observation, flashbacks and a lot of jokes. It used to be hard to tell when exactly one of his films shifts into a dream or a joke; Mia Madre announces its shifts a little more, it’s a little more obvious. Like Moretti’s 2001 Palme D’or winner, The Son’s Room, the drama is soft-spoken in its portrayal of grief. The more emotional scenes seem like cracks in the film’s gentle visage.
So, the film doesn’t do too much that is unexpected. It’s a slightly more serious film than we’re used to seeing from Moretti. If there is a fly-in-the-ointment, a skronk in the film’s well-behaved drama, it is John Turturro. He plays Barry Huggins, a loud boisterous American actor (he brags about being fired by Kubrick) who can’t seem to remember any of any his lines, freaks out about his fake moustache, and can’t drive and act at the same time. Turturro provides an unpredictable energy that clashes against the fabric of the film in a productive manner. A lovely scene late in the film features Barry visiting Marguerita at her mother’s home for dinner (this after a crazy screaming match between them) explaining his attitude on set even brings him into the film’s humanist fold.
The film scenes are not a distraction from the emotional thrust of the mother narrative. They are instead what give the film balance. Marguerita muddles through: giving cryptic advice to her actors, complaining about the bogus nature of her extras, wondering about the political sympathies of her camera operators. This is the emotional, textural bric-a-brac that doesn’t go away, even if your life is undergoing a crisis. The best scene in the film features an assistant walking up to Marguerita as she directs a scene and delivering bad news. When Marguerita walks away from the film shoot defeated, it crystalizes everything. The line between the private and public life is bridged. The meaning placed in work suddenly doesn’t seem so important. All that matters are the last two images: a vision of tomorrow and the grief that we can’t escape.