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MIA MADRE (2015) review

September 3, 2016

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written by: Nanni Moretti, Valia Santella and Francesco Piccolo
produced by: Nanni Moretti and Domenico Procacci
directed by: Nanni Moretti
rated: R (for language)
runtime: 107 min.
U.S. release date: October 15, 2015 (Chicago International Film Festival), August 26, 2016 (limited) & September 2-8, 2016 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)

 

It may seem obvious, but sometimes you just have to see a film for yourself, despite the word of mouth it’s earned.  I didn’t catch “Mia Madre” when it opened the Chicago International Film Festival (after previously appearing at Cannes) last year, but I was told I didn’t miss out on much. I don’t remember who told me that, but I do recall that was the building consensus. Having finally caught up with this artful and emotional drama, directed and co-written by Italian actor/director Nanni Moretti (“The Son’s Room”), I’m reminded that, like so many things in life,  it’s always best to decide for yourself.

“Mia Madre”takes place in present-day Rome and revolves around Margherita (frequent Moretti collaborator, Margherita Buy), a film director currently shooting a movie while wrestling with what remaining control she has of her life. It’s not working out too well. She feels the social-conscious movie she’s shooting about Italian labor disputes is one that can inspire hope, but is discouraged when her ailing mother wonders why she has to make such a dour film. The big-name star of her film Barry Huggins (a delightfully manic John Turturro) is an Italian-American lout, who masks his insecurities with pomposity. One of the actors in her film is Vittorio   (Enrico Ianniello), a lover Margherita recently broke off from, still raw with hurt and resentment, which only makes the filmmaking vibe more awkward.

The set becomes a frustratingly tense work environment, with Barry constantly forgetting his lines and Margherita over-directing her actors, exasperating everyone around her. Little does she know, this is how Margherita generally comes across, she just hasn’t been paying attention.

 

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Outside of her professional life, the stressed Margherita is also involved in caring for her dying mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a former teacher who is now hospitalized and confused by her situation. She shares these duties with her brother, Giovanni (Nanni Moretti), who’s taken leave from his job (one gets the idea it could be because doing both is too stressful or he’s become disillusioned by his work) to care for their mother. She’s also trying to figure out ways to help her teenage daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini) with her flailing scholastic endeavors. It’s become clear to everyone around Margherita that she’s created walls around her that make it a challenge for anyone to help her or maintain a loving relationship with her. As Margherita tries to keep all the plates spinning in her life, her fatigue has her envisioning scenes that may or may not be happening and realizes she could really use her mother right now

This is a film that could’ve easily been a comedy or a sobering drama, yet what it turns out to be is a measured mix of the two. That’s a good thing since the latter would be quite heavy and the former would likely do an injustice to the realities of life the film covers. “Mia Madre” is actually loosely based on Moretti’s own life, drawing on his experience while filming 2011’s “Habemus Papam” as his own mother was dying. In this film, Margherita’s deteriorating condition weighs heavily throughout, but Moretti also finds the touches of humor that surface amid the chaos of the character’s overwhelming life. It makes sense when you think about how often life can become so frazzled and absurdly overwhelming that even serious things start to seem funny. Moretti has made a film that’s quite relatable in that sense. There are situations and family dynamics that will ring true to viewers, but there’s also the task of trying to accomplish something and getting frustrating by both the obstacles that pop-up and the mistakes you make along the way, is definitely something that anyone can relate to.

Many films have covered the on-set chaos of filmmaking, but the film being made in “Mia Madre” isn’t as crucial to the personal tale Moretti unveils. The stress and frustrations of movie-making adds to the existing anxiety and helplessness Margherita already has about seemingly every aspect of her personal life. Moretti is more concerned with emphasizing how unprepared and caught off guard we get when it comes to life’s challenges. Margherita’s grief is in coming to terms (or not) with the fact that her mother isn’t going to be around much longer, on top of the awkwardness of directing a boyfriend she just dumped alongside an incorrigible actor as well as trying to figure out how to help her daughter. Moretti has Buy to exquisitely convey the exasperation and exhaustion is someone is coming unhinged and doing her best to keep it together in crisis mode.

 

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This being my first Moretti film, I’m coming to “Mia Madre” with a clean slate of expectations. I can tell by doing a little research that the actor/director has a tendency of putting himself into his own films and his portrayal of Margherita’s brother Giovanni is a welcome one. Usually whenever a parent is deathly ill, the adult siblings are portrayed with some kind of “elephant in the room” awkwardness or a bitterness to their relationship. Not here. Here, Giovanni, who is relatively the same age as Margherita, is the kind and patient sibling his sister needs right now. He’s the rock Margherita needs as she finds him always by their mother’s side when she steps away from the set. Giovanni admires and supports her and later on in the film, Margherita realizes that her brother has tried to tell her in the past that she has a tendency of being kind of demanding and overbearing. Moretti has written the character to be the needed sound board and voice of reason for Buy’s Margherita.

Both siblings are dealing with the reality of their dying mother in different ways. Giovanna is much more level-headed and accepting of his mother’s bed-ridden condition, while Margherita feels guilty she can’t get away from her job as easily as her brother and is also in denial that her mother will no longer live. This can be seen in her subconscious when we find variations of her mother visiting her dreams, where Margherita is either helpless or too late to help her mother. It’s a testament to the characterization and the performances that the relationship between the siblings never feels forced, but rather a subtle one of mutual understanding and support.

 

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As for Turturro’s role, his presence is the very opposite of subtlety and while the egotistical Barry Huggins adds some needed levity, he’s more than just comic relief. Sure, it’s humorous to see him mispronounce the Italian language and fluster his lines, but despite his outbursts Turturro also conveys a pathetic side to the actor that has us empathizing for him, or at least pitying him. His role had me thinking about the amount of unknown times American actors have taken jobs in different countries, because they’re either getting typecast or overlooked altogether (think Bill Murray’s character in “Lost in Translation”). There’s a dinner scene toward the end of the film that I wanted more of – Barry has been invited to Margherita’s place to have dinner with her and Giovanni and Livia and it’s after the director has lost her cool and gone off on Barry on the set. It’s here where we see what lies beneath Barry’s outward overconfidence and Turturro is great at hitting just the right nuanced notes. In showing a glimpse of the real Barry, the character is then endeared to everyone else around him and it becomes clear that he’s not that different from everyone else.

The themes of death, anxiety and grief in “Mia Madre” could’ve easily been heavy-handed, but Moratti’s deliberately quiet and sensitive approach feels like a form of catharsis. There’s no flashy Oscar bait moments here, just an invitation to closely follow these characters and connect to their lives.  At times, the comic moments from Turturro outlive their welcome, but Buy’s work certainly holds the film together with her committed honesty and authentic feelings. “Mia Madre” is the kind of film that offers much more satisfaction then one would expect and does so in an earnest and artful manner.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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