It is a bit of a cliché, the relationship of Italian men and their mothers, but in the hands of Italian director Marco Bellocchio they become a more universal story, as anyone who has ever experienced the death of a parent can relate to the struggle that it takes to cope. Is it a striking coincidence that for the second year in a row we have an Italian film in which a man is grappling with the death of his mother? Last year we had Nanni Moretti in the official competition with Mia Madre, and truth be told, Bellocchio’s latest work, Fai bei sogni (which opens the Directors’ Fortnight this year) should have been there too. It is a major effort by an auteur whose body of work is impressive to begin with. Fai bei sogni raises the bar for the films that are in the official competition, and it might turn out to be another major coup for Fortnight director Edouard Waintrop, after snatching up Arnaud Desplechin’s Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse twelve months ago.
The film is based on a novel of the same name by journalist Massimo Gramellini, an autobiographical story of how the death of a mother has a profound effect on a young son, so profound that it takes him half a lifetime to fully come to terms with it. Young Massimo (Nicolò Cabras, a great find) is adored by his mother (Barbara Ronchi), even though her melancholical stares signal early on that something’s amiss. One night, Massimo is woken by a cry of his father, and his mother is never seen again. While his family tries to hide what happened to her, the confused young kid refuses to accept his mother not being there. She was always there, so why can’t she be there now? Cabras, honest and wide-eyed, is heartbreaking in these scenes, as he slowly starts to realize that his mother is dead, putting his young life in turmoil. What exactly happened to her is shrouded in mystery, and it is this that confuses him. The confusion doesn’t subside as he grows older, as we jump through his life and see how his mother’s early death has influenced his life choices and his personality. The grown-up Massimo becomes a political and war journalist, and in this profession he finds death on his path often, particularly during a stint in war-torn Sarajevo. Old wounds keep getting ripped open, as he tries to deal with death and exactly what happened that one night.
The story, even if true, could lead to big, overly melodramatic moments in the hands of a lesser director. But Bellocchio is not a man of grand, exaggerated gestures. Like his protagonist Massimo, his film is measured and restrained, never aiming for cheap emotions, which means that any tear shed is well-earned and sincere. An example of this is his use of music, which he lets take over a scene frequently as a source of joy and intimacy for his characters. Yet for the key emotional sequences, he trusts the silence instead of underscoring the drama, making these scenes all the more powerful. It also allows the actors to shine, an opportunity they seize without exception, Valerio Mastandrea (as the adult Massimo) and Barbara Ronchi being particular standouts. The names of Bérénice Bejo and Emmanuelle Devos probably draw most attention to the film (if not the director’s name itself), but they are content to excel in smaller roles, especially Devos.
The acting is understated and subtle, as are the other elements that make up this film. The lensing and filtering by Daniele Ciprì wash the flashbacks to Massimo’s younger years in a nostalgic, melancholic light, and together with Bellocchio’s keen eye for mise-en-scene make for some eye-popping shots (watch out for Devos’ entry into the film) that also carry the poignancy of the story. More deep-focused shots, just as striking visually, put more emphasis on the older Massimo’s loneliness in his grief and his search for closure. Save for a moment or two in which the screenplay is a little bit too on the nose, Fai bei sogni manages to steer clear of false notes, and manages to keep the mystery surrounding the mother’s death just that, making for a powerful conclusion in the film’s finale. The true story might not come as a surprise to the audience, but it does to Massimo, and it is testament to the strength of the film that the ending will leave nary a dry eye in the house. Deeply humanistic and heartfelt, Fai bei sogni is a gentle but powerful rumination about sons, mothers, and death, and a very promising start for the Quinzaine.