Having recently suffered a loss myself (albeith under entirely different circumstances to those seen in this film), Nanni Moretti’s latest treatise on death and grief touched a raw nerve at times; however although this is a sombre piece overall it is also one that deserves to be championed as heartfelt and honest, and it deals with illness and bereavement in an intelligent, straightforward and moving way, carefully balancing its necessary moments of sadness with sporadic and well-judged outbursts of humour.
The plot is simple, uncomplicated. Margherita (played with consummate skill by Margherita Buy) is a successful, established director who is working on a new, earnest-looking film in Rome about a clash in the workplace between striking staff and upper management (her star, who has travelled across the Atlantic to appear, is an American actor named Barry Huggins, memorably played by an on-form John Turturro). Margherita’s time is precious: she is required to be on set for most of the day, while in the evening she travels to the hospital in order to be by the side of her ailing mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a former professor whose health is slowly failing due to respiratory difficulties. Balancing the busy workday while coming to terms with the rapidly-deteriorating condition of her mother understandably proves to be a huge strain, and gradually the shoot becomes ever more fraught as the director cracks under the stress of the situation and Barry forgets his lines or fails to perform simple acting tasks. Meanwhile, each night Margherita is joined at the hospital by her sympathetic brother Giovanni (played by the director, who regularly casts hismelf in bigger parts in his own films and who also wrote the screenplay); he appears to be dealing with the impending death well, but it turns out that he is also experiencing difficulties in the workplace. Both siblings experience strange dreams, or daydreams, as a result of the stress; Moratti switches into these sequences with no warning whatsoever, and the content is designed to subtly wrongfoot the audience so that it’s not initially clear that you are watching a flight-of-fancy (we see Margherita wake suddenly from one dream and step on to a flooded bedroom floor, for example; at first it’s hard to tell whether she is still dreaming or whether there has actually been a leak somewhere in her apartment).
There’s a pleasant back-and-forth aspect to the film as the action switches between hospital and studio set, with little relief to be found anywhere for the protagonist (though interestingly when the characters are away from work, or away from the hospital, there is plenty of joy on screen). The news received from doctors is never positive, and Margherita doesn’t seem to be able to take in or understand what they are saying to her, while during the day she ends up criticising the work of assistants, camera operators, make-up artists, casting agents and many more besides. People generally want to help, though, and are understanding of both her situation and her behaviour: an actor (and former lover) lays out a couple of home truths in a well-intentioned but searingly-honest fashion, and despite his role as a Big Time Charlie offering semi-comic relief Turturro’s character is also able to offer a sympathetic ear, at one point patiently listening to Margherita’s outpouring about her mother while the rest of the cast and crew wait for her to shout ‘Action!’.
In the hands of a lesser writer that would be it for Turturro’s Barry, but there are several scenes containing small details that help to give depth to the supporting character, such as the one that takes place at a dinner table in which he reveals that he has ongoing problems with his memory (which obviously sheds light on his earlier failure to get scenes right in one, two or three takes). For the most part, though, the story focuses on the relationship between Giovanni and Margherita, and also the one that exists between Margherita, Ava and Margherita’s teenage daughter, which is nicely illustrated via the younger family member’s study of Latin.
Is this latter detail indicative of Moretti’s belief in the importance of tradition, which we see passed on orally and through the medium of books? Ava’s library is shot here in a way that makes it look as if it is already an anachronism, and Margherita wonders aloud about what will happen to her mother’s knowledge when she passes away. Another question: is there a general message in Mia Madre about the modern concerns of European cinema? It could be argued that the Palme d’Or-winning director is suggesting through the film-within-a-film structure that the manifold stories about modern socio-political issues like employment and welfare may well currently be dominating the cinematic landscape but that filmmakers should not lose sight of those timeless, personal family stories. That’s the feeling I got, anyway, from this low-key but poignant, well-acted story.
Directed by: Nanni Moretti.
Written by: Nanni Moretti, Valia Santella, Francesco Piccolo.
Starring: Margherita Buy, Giulia Lazzarini, John Turturro, Nanni Moretti.
Cinematography: Arnaldo Catinari.
Editing: Clelio Benevento.
Running Time: 106 minutes.