Director: Nanni Moretti
Cast: Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Nanni Moretti, Giulia Lazzarini
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In Italian director Nanni Moretti’s latest effort, Margherita Buy plays a filmmaker with the same first name, in production on a politically charged drama. She’s a figure that, based on Mia Madre’s script, one suspects makes films like Moretti’s own socially engaged hits (The Son’s Room, Dear Diary). While she’s having a creative crisis on set, even before her self-centred American star (Turturro) turns up to the shoot, a personal crisis is ensuing off set, as she’s trying to come to terms with her mother dying in hospital.
Moretti (who has a screenplay credit and also plays Margherita’s brother) has a tricky balancing act to manage with Mia Madre, being that he swerves from dying parent melodrama to film-shoot comedy. For the most part, it’s a trick he pulls off well. With a precise grasp of his film’s tone, the shifts are gentle and never jarring; as events unfold, the two shorelines feel like appropriate bedfellows, despite their apparent unsuitability. Part of their successful gelling comes from their thematic similarity: micromanaging and passive-aggressive outbursts might prevent a hitch when making a movie, but they can’t prevent or slow down the death of a loved one.
While Moretti does reap pathos from proceedings, there is a nagging sense that perhaps a little more attention should be focused on the mother-daughter relationship. One can always gather that it’s in the back of Margherita’s mind in scenes that don’t involve the mother or brother, but when it comes to Moretti, there’s a sense that maybe he fell a little too in love with the filmmaking side of the narrative and the enjoyable comedy of Turturro’s somewhat buffoonish actor, a man who regales tales of working with Stanley Kubrick, despite never having a credited role in any of the man’s features.
Then again, one might see the misplacement of priorities as an intentional thematic statement; when personal hardship reaches devastating levels of despair, we can be inclined to distract ourselves with frivolity. The DNA of Mia Madre, according to some reports, stems from the death of Moretti’s own mother a couple of years back and maybe in trying to articulate that experience on film, he too found it easier to focus on the larger scale mayhem. That’s one generous way to read the sometimes scattered quality of the film, but it’s hard not to feel at times, even when the emotional beats do still tend to hit, that maybe a clown shouldn’t be stealing so much attention from a dying woman.