Mia Madre

May 6, 2016
John Turturro in 'Mia Madre' (2015)
John Turturro in 'Mia Madre' (2015)

Mia Madre is an example of a favourite cinematic sub-genre: the film about a director making a film. Fellini’s is the grandfather of the lot, but every year there are new installments. This time it isn’t Fellini’s alter-ego wading through a surrealistic cavalcade of memories, or Wim Wenders’s bleak evocation of a stalled film shoot in The State of Things. Margherita Buy stars as a director (inevitably called Margherita) trying to make a movie about industrial unrest while her private life disintegrates and her mother lies dying in hospital.

Director, Nanni Moretti, plays the role of Margherita’s brother, Giovanni, who seems to be the stable, organised member of the family, although he is also going through a mid-life crisis that has prompted him to quit his job. One realises there is a large helping of autobiography in this story, although Moretti’s personal experiences have been sliced up and assigned to different characters. He has already made a film about making a film, in The Caiman (2006) – a wry critique of Silvio Berlusconi at one remove.

Mia Madre is a fugue in which Margherita’s private and professional selves are interwoven in a way that exacerbates the problems and tensions in each strand. In psychiatric parlance a fugue is a loss of awareness of one’s identity, and this describes Margherita’s increasing confusion over her roles as a daughter, a mother, and a director engaged in an elaborate film shoot.

Her problems are thrown into relief by the arrival of Barry Huggins (John Turturro), a brash New York actor who will play the role of the factory boss in her film. Barry speaks Italian, but not well enough to remember his lines. He boasts about his work with Stanley Kubrick, although he never appeared in a single Kubrick production. He is loud, flirtatious, and fond of a drink, able to charm or exasperate the crew. Insecurity and self-confidence vie for possession of his personality.

While Barry is playing the fictional boss, Margherita is struggling with her own leadership duties, as her personal problems interfere with her work on set. She issues confusing instructions to her actors, telling them to “stand to one side of the character” as they perform. It may sound profound, but even Margherita admits that she doesn’t know what it means.

The dying mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), is a retired teacher of classics who still commands the respect of her former students. It’s a job that feels impressively serious alongside her daughter’s profession. Margherita tells her mother she’s making a film “full of energy and hope”, but she can’t convince herself this is true.

Every incident feeds into Margherita’s psychological disquiet. She is concerned that her daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini), is struggling with Latin, but the significance lies more in the connection with Ada than with any belief in the continuing relevance of the language. When her estranged boyfriend, Vittorio (Enrico Ianiello), gives her a lecture on her own egotism, she takes it to heart. She can see that her obsession with work, and the self-belief required from a director, has rendered her blind to the sensitivities of others.

This may sound like a study of a neurotic mess, but Moretti’s characterisation is more subtle and complex, with moments of introspection being offset by the comedy of the clashes between the director, her cast and crew. Turturro’s portrayal of Barry, alternately charming and obnoxious, is a great relief from the quiet, still moments spent at Ada’s bedside.

Moretti knows he is making a film in which the lead character is an oblique self-portrait. The parallels extend to the fact that his own mother died during the shooting of his previous film, We Have a Pope (2011).

In Mia Madre Moretti is the embodiment of Margherita’s dictum that an actor should “stand to one side of the character”. Playing Margherita’s brother, he stands to one side of a female character that displays all of his own traits. Brother and sister are two sides of the same personality – one calm and rational, the other emotionally volatile. They are anima and animus.

A story that could have descended into soap opera or self-indulgence is balanced by Moretti’s skill at knowing when to change the mood and tempo. Mia Madre is not so much a film about the rarefied profession of a director, but a deeply humane tale of life and death and the choices we make. It examines the indissolubility of work and private life today, and the way one impacts on the other. It shows how a professional persona can be undermined by feelings of guilt or regret that lurk in the back of the mind. It suggests that regardless of the image we project to the world, we remain forever incomplete.

Mia Madre
Directed by Nanni Moretti
Written by Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Valia Santella, Gala Manzini & Chiara Valerio
Starring Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Nanni Moretti, Giulia Lazzarini, Beatrice Mancini
Italy/France/Germany, rated M, 106 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7th May, 2016.

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