‘Mia Madre’ makes quiet, precise observations

I’m not sure I’d trust someone who says making a movie is harder than caring for a sick mother, but Nanni Moretti at least shows audiences the horrors of both. Mia Madre follows Margherita (Margherita Buy), a director harried by the production of Noi Siamo Qui (We Are Here), where the actors miss cues or forget lines altogether. Meanwhile her mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), dying in the hospital from a combination of deadly cardiopulmonary ailments, wonders why she isn’t visited more often. Peppery and taut, Mia Madre has more interesting things to say about obligations to the living than it does about moviemaking, but what looks agreeable if slack accumulates power in its final frames.

One of the pleasures of Mia Madre is its perceptiveness about the distractions a female director faces from which a male one is exempt; for that matter, it’s not often that a male director creates a female director stand-in. While Margherita is breaking up with boyfriend Vittorio (Enrico Ianniello), she’s also keeping an eye on the teenage daughter whose grades might be slipping (Ada, a professor of classics, used to tutor her on Latin). Her brother Giovanni (Moretti himself) projects amiable bearded confusion; he’s not up to dealing with the politics of Italian medicine.

Where Federico Fellini filled 8 1/2, his own depiction of the interior life of a director, with phantasmagoric projections of aesthetic and romantic failure, Moratti places Margherita in flashbacks illustrating how the banalities of life can ensnare even the most robust imagination. She remembers the amusement and horror of Ava driving a car for the last time: it so offended her that she got behind the wheel and drove the vehicle several times against the wall while Ava watches in horror. And Moretti includes his own bit of surrealism, which I won’t spoil and whose power I doubt but is welcome nonetheless.

As for Noi Siamo Qui, the more accurate English title based on what we see on screen is There It Is, as in, there’s the disaster. Theoretically a social realist picture of the Andrzej Wajda kind in which factory workers organize for their rights, Noi Siamo Qui looks like an unintentional comedy, and that’s due to the casting of American actor Barry Huggins as the autocratic boss. A smart but pompous ass who can’t stop mentioning that Stanley Kubrick considered casting him in a movie, Huggins may speak phonetically correct Italian but is incapable of remembering a word of dialogue. As played by John Turturro, in a performance capitalizing on the actor’s talent for mounting hysteria, he’s a man whose civility shows its face after a few glasses of wine or in press conferences – in other words, when he’s assured of an audience (praising Margherita at the conference, Huggins lays it on so thick that he sounds like Jack Benny in To Be Or Not to Be praising that “great, great Polish actor” Joseph Tura).

Audiences familiar with Moretti films like Caro Diario and The Son’s Room will recognize his sprung rhythms and immunity from cant. “Break one of your patterns, lighten up a little!” shouts Vittorio; earlier, Huggins had praised her “feminine touch” as a director. Brief moments between Ada and granddaughter Livia, the latter learning verb conjugations, illustrate how instruction and affection can blur. How easy to break patterns and to lighten up when you’re not required to follow patterns and take familial bonds seriously. But Moretti doesn’t judge Huggins or Vittorio; trapping them in self-delusion is their punishment. In the meantime Margherita has a film to finish and a life to live. Mia Madre understand that work is work.

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