Reviewed by Selma Thompson
A heartfelt film, Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre is alternately tender, funny, cinematically bold– and exasperating. Director Moretti has co-written a script about an Italian film director whose elderly mother (the gifted actress, Giulia Lazzarini) is slowly dying; she is a beloved retired teacher, like Moretti’s own late mother. Lest the viewer consider this an autobiographical work, however, the director in the film is a she (played by Margherita Buy); and while it is always thrilling to see a woman film director either onscreen or off, this part often plays more like a clumsy stand-in for Moretti than a fully conceived female character. Yet what Moretti sometimes lacks as a screenwriter, he more than compensates for behind the camera. Many stylized sequences will haunt the viewer long after the film is over. At other times, the quotidian details of Italian life will fascinate. Who could turn down a chance to live in Moretti’s Rome, even if for only 106 minutes of screen time?
Margherita (character and actress share the same first name for some reason) juggles a host of on-set difficulties while filming a movie-within-a movie about a labor strike. In addition to getting the shot, she must manage egotistical Barry Huggins (John Turturro) the American actor flown in to play the lead; somehow find time to end an affair with one of her actors (Enrico Lannello); cope with a rebellious teenage daughter (Beatrice Mancini); and also make it to her mother’s bedside. Margherita Buy brings to her role a charming nervous energy that hints at escalating grief, as well as an impish smile when confronted with the more ridiculous stresses of daily life.
What is lacking is any hint of the qualities that would get a female director to such a position of power and responsibility in this man’s world of filmmaking. The character seems generic—as written, she could easily be a female librarian or nurse or accountant coping with a dying mother and a demanding job. Would casting a male actor have brought a greater element of surprise, a sense of something unique, to the many moments of vulnerability? Would there be more careerism and male pride for the character to overcome? The question is complicated further by Moretti choosing to put himself in the film as Giovanni, Margherita’s brother, who manages to find time to tend his mother around-the-clock, even bringing an elaborate home cooked meal to her hospital room, causing Margherita to hide the take-out she brought. It is never clear how intentional the reversal of gender expectations in these brother/sister roles is meant to be, though Moretti brings a gentle strength and charm to his scenes which make his role the more believable.
Casting John Turturro as Barry Huggins also sets up some viewer expectations which are never fully realized. An Italian-American returning to Italy promises comic misdirection galore—the outsider who assumes he’s an insider but gets the details wrong. Moretti, however, has suggested in interviews that the casting was prompted by a chance encounter rather than the need to place an Italian-American in the role; Moretti happened to meet the actor when Turturro was filming, Passione, his documentary on the music of Naples. Still, Turturro is a delight, playing a bad actor as only a great actor can. At times, Turturro does seem in a different film altogether, though his scenes provide a welcome comic relief in an otherwise slow-moving meditation on grief and loss. And auteur Moretti shows his signature compassion in a final, unexpected scene where Turturro’s character provides insight into his boorish behavior, finally relating his story to the themes and tone of the rest of Mia Madre.
At the heart of the movie is a celebration of the life of a dying mother: Giulia Lazzarini’s Ada is a marvel. Hers is one of the most nuanced, dignified, endearing and unsentimental portraits of an older woman on film. Moretti and his co-writers present us with an aging modern woman completely without cliché—a retired Latin teacher adored by former students, engaged by the world up to her final moments. Ada is accomplished and kind, and wryly observant. Giulia Lazzarini’s performance is a tribute to both the actress and her director.
The scenes between Ada, her daughter Margherita, and Margherita’s teenage Livia create a unique portrait of three generations of women which elevates the film. Despite Moretti’s occasionally problematic depiction of a woman in a male-dominated profession, his dramatization of the moments in Margherita’s personal life are tender and unforgettable. The Bechdel Test, writer Alison Bechdel’s challenge to filmmakers to present scenes where women talk to each other about something besides men, is met brilliantly in Mia Madre. Ada asks her daughter how the day went on the set and critiques the film project with a smile. Ada coaxes her granddaughter into appreciating a Latin assignment. After Ada has died, a female former student consoles Margherita by sharing a moment when Ada danced with the class.
Moretti further elevates the film beyond melodrama with his cinematic choices. As Margherita’s denial of her mother’s imminent death turns into reluctant acceptance, then grief, fantasy and reality merge. The viewer is as disoriented as the grieving character when past and present sometimes overlap for Margherita, and she is jolted to realize she’s having a nightmare, or is daydreaming at work. We are gifted with an immersive experience of mourning, one which could only be explored on film.
Music also adds to the power of Mia Madre. The film opens with a delicate Arvo Part piano score, simple, almost hesitant, in which the silences are as important as the notes; a fitting metaphor for the story to come. When Margherita walks past a line of people waiting to get into one of her films (Moretti’s nod to Woody Allen’s movie theater scene in “Annie Hall”, but executed in Moretti’s languid style) a haunting Leonard Cohen tune completes the mood. The score throughout is always on point.
Mia Madre resonates on many emotional levels. The viewer is presented with a singular experience that Nanni Moretti alone could bring to the screen. Though not without missed opportunities, at times puzzling characterizations, and lapses in tone, Mia Madre also offers a celebration of cinema, and a wise exploration of grief and love.
Selma Thompson: A Lifetime Member of The Writers Guild of America, East, she has written scripts for television, cable and studios. Her work has won a Cine Golden Eagle and been nominated for a Prism Award. She is also a script consultant, and teaches screenwriting and script analysis at NYU, where she was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award. Educated at Princeton University and The University of London, she holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Tisch School of the Arts/NYU