MIA MADRE, comedy/drama, rated PG, in Italian with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles Life and art collide in this touching, funny, dynamically complex film from director Nanni Moretti (We Have a Pope). His protagonist is Margherita (Margherita Buy), a filmmaker directing a movie about labor strife in an Italian factory. We open on a street demonstration, with strikers marching and cops wielding truncheons and fire hoses. Then Margherita shouts “Cut!” and we’re at a film shoot, with stars and extras and grips and all the conflicts and the avalanche of details that plague a director’s world.
And that’s not all she has on her plate. Her mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), is in the hospital with heart problems and a bleak prognosis. Margherita rushes nightly from the set to the ward, where her brother Giovanni (Moretti) has quietly taken charge. She’s also in the process of breaking up with a boyfriend — Vittorio (Enrico Ianniello), one of the lead actors of her movie. Oh, and her star, the American actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro) is flying in from Hollywood, and he turns out to be a king-sized headache, blowing lines, hitting on Margherita, and bragging about his closeness with Stanley Kubrick, who once fired him. Turturro is hilariously exuberant, but one of the film’s minor flaws is that we never quite understand what made Margherita want him in the first place.
It’s enough to drive a person around the bend, and Margherita seems to be losing her grip as problems escalate. She starts having flashbacks and nightmares, sleeping and waking, in scenes that Moretti integrates into the action so neatly that it’s not always evident which side of reality we are on. Loss of control can be serious business for a control freak, and Margherita is forced to confront unpleasant truths about herself, truths that she’s been able to ward off in the past. “It’s the way I work,” she says defensively to Vittorio, the actor she’s just thrown over. “No,” he says, “it’s the way you live.” When she asks Giovanni why nobody has ever told her this stuff before, his shrug is eloquent. Buy handles it all beautifully, with sad eyes and an inner strength that keeps her from going over the edge.
There’s a lot about structure, some of it wrapped up in the Latin course with which Margherita’s teenage daughter is struggling. Margherita insists that Latin is important, but when pressed, she can’t think why. And there’s a bit of direction she always gives actors — “Play the character, but stand next to the character” — that nobody understands. Finally Margherita admits that she doesn’t, either.
Moretti has made an intriguingly wry and personal film about the integration of life and work, love and loss, laughter and tears. And in a scene where Huggins comes over for dinner, Moretti as Giovanni gives him a heartfelt piece of advice: “Never contradict the director.” — Jonathan Richards
Cinema purgatorio: Margherita Buy and John Turturro