Under normal circumstances, we all have to bury our mother at some point in our life. In many cases, this is the endpoint of a process: your mother has already been ill for some time, with all hope given up. It’s this process that Italian helmer Nanni Moretti, a former jury president here in Cannes, dissects with a delicacy in his new film Mia Madre, that strikes a perfect balance between drama and comedy. Even if this film isn’t autobiographical in the sense that Moretti actually lost his mother during the making of his previous film, Habemus Papam, and you can feel he, through this experience, understands that moment in life where the death of a parent is coming sooner rather than later, and he is dealing with this through the film.
One giveaway for this is the central character, Margherita (Margherita Buy), being a director. She is in the process of directing a film when her mother is hospitalized. Her brother Giovanni (a very restrained Moretti) helps her out with the latter problem, but he is so much better at it that it makes her feel inadequate. When the lead actor in the film-within-a-film she is directing, supposedly famous American actor Barry Huggins (an often hilarious John Turturro) arrives on set and turns out to be very difficult to work with, Margherita is slowly pushed to the brink. Preoccupied with her mother’s health, she starts having nightmares and loses control of her life. The mother is diagnosed as terminal, the film shoot is a mess, and on top of that, her teenage daughter behaves like, well, a typical adolescent. How do you deal with all of that?
Even though that is on the surface a rather dreary synopsis, there is a lot of laughter too, mainly provided in the scenes on set with Barry Huggins. Turturro plays the man as a bit of a buffoon, and goes gleefully over the top in his scenes-within-the-scenes, giving a Marlon-Brando-in-Godfather imitation where his character (again, in the film-within-the-film) doesn’t require it. He turns out quite a diva, complaining about lines when he screws them up, and a running gag of him boasting of having worked with Stanley Kubrick in particular draws the biggest laughs. Yet Moretti is three-dimensional enough to even give him a redeeming moment or two.
Turturro may steal the scenes he is in, but when it comes to the heavy dramatic lifting this film belongs to Buy, who steers clear of histrionics to give a detailed, measured, deeply felt portrayal of a women struggling with the impending loss of a parent. The film moves towards the inevitable, but it is Buy’s performance which makes the emotional payoff in the last ten minutes still hit hard, despite knowing what is coming.
This is perhaps Moretti’s best effort since The Son’s Room. There is not an ounce of fat on this film, everything, including his own performance, contributing to accurately painting what a person goes through when they know a parent is dying. Moretti’s direction is very perfunctory, but the subject matter doesn’t need any flashiness, especially because it’s such a personal process. He trusts his cast, in particular his lead actress, to tell the story, eschewing any kind of formalism (critics would call it point-and-shoot direction). The nightmares are a screenwriting device to keep the audience on edge, but it never becomes intrusive. It is perhaps the recognizability (certainly for people who have already had this happen in their life) that allows the director to let the story unfold in a simple way. Because the power is drawn from the experience, not the conflict in the screenplay, the effort in Mia Madre comes off as sincere and knowledgeable.