Winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the slyly cheeky, surrealistically piquant, and striking Mia Madre directed by Nanni Moretti draws you into the humanely felt story line almost as if you are watching your own family drama unfold without bells and whistles, subtly, profoundly. Once Moretti captures your understanding, with imagination and power, he gradually unwraps the crisis siblings and family confront when their beloved mother becomes fatally ill. The gripping realities of mortal flesh explode in their consciousness, regardless of whether they are prepared for the assault. Moretti’s exploration of the filmmaker daughter who most identifies with her mother and is in complete denial that her mother is dying remains acutely memorable.
The film begins en medias res; renowned Italian filmmaker Margherita (Margherita Buy in a powerful performance of emotional cadences), is directing her latest film about the trials of factory workers who are forced to confront losing their jobs when the new owner, played by actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro is hysterical as the stressed-out, self-absorbed, near bi-polar actor who despises the unreality of his career), takes over and downsizes the factory. Margherita is a self-engrossed, director perfectionist. Immediately, we recognize she is an Alpha personality used to being in control, deterministic, and satisfied with creating her own film realities. All comes crashing to a halt when her mother Ada (an excellent Giulia Lazzarini), a teacher of the classics whose health is on a downhill slide becomes gravely ill and is on her way out of life. This is one reality that Margherita finds unbearable and irreconcilable, yet she must continue to meet her life demands directing the film, caring for her mother with her brother Giovanni, disposing of a relationship that doesn’t work and co-raising her daughter with her former husband.
Moretti’s narrative encompasses Margherita’s relationships with her mother, her daughter, her former husband, and the rock that is her brother Giovanni (Nanni Moretti is understated and authentic as the realist who gently pushes Margherita toward understanding their mother is dying). These interactions are pitted against the scrim of segments showing her comic interactions with her film actors and crew on set and the humorous results of her attempts to massage American actor Barry Huggins into a great performance which is a daunting enterprise.
What Moretti (he co-wrote the screenplay with Francesco Piccolo and Valia Santella), portrays in an ingenious way are the private memory moments Margherita has with her mother. These he cinematically conveys as slips of time that have not evanesced in the past, but are recalled to Margherita at meaningful junctures. Moretti segues these brief sequences into the action of the film seamlessly. Like memories, they pop up randomly stirred by something in reality which settles into experiential past, remembrances which strike when Margherita visits her mother in the hospital or after she sustains the shock of hearing that her mother is dying and will not get better. The memories become the fertile ground that bridges Margherita’s career with her personal life and help her cope with the terrifying pain and emotional failures of the present.
As these recollections meld the past with the present, we recognize that she is attempting to understand her mother’s condition and her own; both are confusing and unanswerable. It is as if she is transmogrifying the past into a still point that she will remember long after her mother is gone to resolve her own issues. Moretti suggests that perhaps, the memory digressions are a movement toward health, a motivation for her to become more receptive and accessible to others emotionally, a failing of hers that others remind her of.
The filmmakers show how the deteriorating conditions of her mother’s health sift Margherita’s soul. Her inner frenzy spills out at work and into her film direction as, roiling within, she attempts to slip by each day up until the time when she visits her mother in the hospital. Many of these scenes on the filmmaking set are funny. The classic acting tropes Turturro touches upon and his hyper rants deliver much of the humor as does Margherita’s directorial explosions, criticisms, and suggestions to her actors which they find confusing, but we find humorous. As a director she uses work as her battering ram to shape herself so she will be able to be loving to her mother, brother, and daughter who moves in with her at her mother’s house during the last weeks of Ada’s illness.
The acting is exceptional and heartfelt. We empathize with the painful moments and exult at the humorous ones on the movie set and in the restaurant when Margherita dines with Barry (Turturro’s joking asides are cleverly believable throughout). The merging of reality and fantasy is amazing, especially when Margherita’s own apartment is flooded and she futilely attempts to sop up the water on the floor with newspapers. The dream memory sequences are appropriately real, yet we understand they are memories and flow with the consciousness of Margherita’s imagination in a surreal way. The filmmakers’ flow of surreal sequences into reality and dream sequence is particularly superb.
The cinematography and editing convey Margherita’s unraveling consciousness and emotional states, and we become increasingly aware as she recognizes her own devolution and frustration at what is becoming. For example, what she once thought remote and beautiful has lost its luster; she comments that words, rhetoric, no longer help. Margherita’s inner state is finely wrought during the press conference where she escapes in her mind; simultaneously the press scene relates with a montage of her mother wandering out of the hospital in her bed clothes. It is another surreal dream sequence, symbolizing that Margherita is the one drifting off during a conference which holds little meaning for her while the imperative of life and her mother’s dying mean everything.
Moretti uses such sequences tellingly; they reveal that Margherita is recognizing elements of her existence that are most false. That truth helps her redirect toward her family-her mother and daughter who are real and crucial to her well being for they define the real Margherita apart from her persona as a filmmaker. Her career and filmmaking fade into artificiality against the screen of mortality, a truism which at one point was probably the reverse for Margherita when filmmaking was more substantial than the reality of her life.
Moretti’s trope is an intriguing one, for there is nothing more vital than assisting and loving one’s mother into the next plane of existence. When she is called home from the film set to be with her mother at the end, she is overcome emotionally, but it is her daughter who weeps outwardly. Yet, she is uplifted and perhaps the healing she needs emotionally will eventually come to rest in her soul.
Mia Madre is sterling. It is surprising and the emotional content is never sappy because Moretti constantly takes it to another level through Margherita’s digressions of memory. The film and superb acting elevate our profound sense that imagination, dreams, remembrances of the past fuse together and inform how we conduct our lives in the present. This is inescapable and there is no turning it around. Especially when we recognize that the loss of someone precious is unbearable and happens as a continuation in front of us until the irreconcilable finality of death, nothing, no experience of our lives prepares us for that shock. Nothing prepares us for what cannot be stopped, and maybe it is doubly hard for those, like Margherita who enjoy controlling “reality.” Moretti’s themes and tropes echo to our soul and find a home there whether we realize it or not. It is a wonderful, healing film.