Title: Mia Madre
Director: Nanni Moretti
Major Players: Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Giulia Lazzarini
Out Of Five: Four
The film industry loves turning the spotlight on itself, so the film-within-a-film idea is something of a cliché – a popular one, but a cliché nonetheless. Thankfully, Italian director Nanni Moretti comes at it from a different angle in his latest, Mia Madre. It’s not the focus but simply a setting and one that provides something of a commentary on the story.
Margherita (Margherita Buy) is a film director, working on a movie about industrial relations during the recession. She’s having to deal with the complexity of crowd scenes and, worse still, an American actor with non-too-perfect Italian and a hugely inflated ego. But her problems at work are nothing compared to what she’s facing away from the set: her long-term relationship has broken down and her mother is diagnosed as terminally ill. Juggling both lives, along with the return of her teenage daughter, starts to take its toll on her.
There’s a word that runs throughout the film, and it’s roared in one scene when imported American actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro) totally loses his rag. It’s “reality”. The fact that an actor is yelling about getting “back to reality” while stood in the middle of a film set is deliciously ridiculous in itself – hilariously so – but it also gets to the nub of the film. Everybody, somewhere along the line, has to face the reality of their situation and/or their own selves. Which means there are times when the film shows the everyday routine that goes with having a close relative in hospital: those day-to-day visits when you eventually run out of things to say, taking in food because what the hospital serves isn’t exactly appetising. There’s even the ordinariness of Margherita’s washing machine flooding her flat overnight, so that she has to de-camp into her mother’s apartment.
It’s the law of sod that everything goes wrong at once, so trying to cope with domestic problems on top of her mother’s slow but inevitable decline makes her frayed at the edges, bursting into tears at home or, on the set, losing her temper at the smallest thing. Every time she’s told about her mother’s deterioration, she initially refuses to believe it and, towards the end, she shouts at her mother for not being able to walk just three steps. And she’s consumed with guilt immediately afterwards. It’s all understandable, all truthful and all beautifully acted.
Her mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) is a former teacher, one her former pupils remember with huge affection and respect, enough to make them want visit her years after they’ve left school. She’s also the sort of grandmother everybody would want – kind, understanding and supportive in a practical way, but never saintly. Her son, and Margherita’s brother, Giovanni, is played by director Moretti himself. He’s very much his mother’s son, a reflection of her patience and compassion: he may not be the most dynamic of men, but you’d trust him with your life and want him in your corner if the going got tough.
Margherita, much as she loves her mother, is nothing like her: prickly, insensitive and, despite having to run a film set, not espcially good at communicating with others. Her star actor, Barry Huggins (John Turturro) presents her with even more problems – his average Italian, his terrible memory and his ego. Yet when he reveals a personal secret, he presents a whole new side to his character. While his is the showy turn, and he plays it up to the hilt, all of the main roles are played with insight, understanding and subtlety.
The theme of the film may be reality, but its title is, after all, “Mia Madre” – my mother – and motherhood comes in a close second. Mother and child relationships aside, there’s other views of the role: Ada’s former students regard her as a mother figure and, towards the end, the conventional relationship is turned on its head, with Margherita having to mother the woman who gave birth to her.
Mia Madre was given a standing ovation at this year’s Cannes that lasted for nearly eight minutes. It was well deserved. The blend of sadness and humour, wisdom and compassion, combined with superb acting, makes it a film to savour. And one that will stand repeat viewings.
Mia Madre is released at selected cinemas and online on Friday, 25 September and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 24 September.