Directed by Nanni Moretti
Released August 26, 2016
Films about filmmakers rarely serve as portraits of happy, fulfilled people. One of the main reasons for directors and writers to tell stories in cinematic form is that they’re trying to cope with or understand what’s going on in their own lives, either mirroring events or masking them entirely in a fantasy of some sort. Sometimes a filmmaker disconnects himself or herself so much from his or her project that there seems to be nothing in common between the two, and when do intersect or overlap it’s all the more glaring. “Mia Madre” presents one such scenario.
Margherita (Margherita Buy) is in the midst of making a major film about workers’ rights. Scenes are already complicated to shoot before the arrival of the American star, Barry Huggins (John Turturro), whose inability to speak Italian and lack of commitment to learning and nailing each line further frustrate things. At the same time, Margherita spends time running to the hospital to visit her sick mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) and struggling to accept the truth about her decline that her supportive brother Giovanni (Nanni Moretti) already knows. All of this stress predictably leads to Margherita turning inward to figure out where her life is headed.
“Mia Madre” is in many ways a very typical story about a professional overrun by personal troubles that threaten to take down both parts of her lives. What only stretches out the pain is that Ada is not unconscious or on death’s door. Instead, she is fully lucid and conversational and gradually begins to decline, mistaking her daughter for someone else and then apologizing as she realizes her error. That coupled with Barry’s seemingly deliberate forgetting of his lines makes for a very frazzled Margherita ready to come apart.
This film comes from director Nanni Moretti, whose last film was the entertaining “We Have a Pope.” Like in that film, Moretti casts himself in a supporting role, that of Giovanni, quietly steering the film in the right direction as the one truly stable thing in Margherita’s life. Buy, who won Italy’s equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress, is terrific, displaying a range of subtle emotions throughout her performance. Lazzarini, who also took home a David di Donatello Award, turns in a strong and endearing portrayal of a declining matriarch. And then there’s Turturro, who could stick out like a sore thumb but instead portrays an American moderately more sophisticated and adjusted than might be expected. As a whole, this is an engaging and involving experience that is at the right times amusing and at others resounding.