Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015)

Margherita and Giovanni at their mother's bedside.

Margherita and Giovanni at their mother’s bedside.

Mia Madre is a rather wonderful but sometimes mysterious film about love and death, mothers, daughters and sons – and filmmaking – set in Rome. For Nanni Moretti it’s a ‘personal’ film in several senses. He lost his own mother when making We Have a Pope in 2011 and the character of the film director may well be informed by some of his own thoughts and experiences (he writes most of his own scripts). But although he appears in the film, Moretti takes one of the supporting roles rather than the lead. The central character, the film director, is Margherita played by Margherita Buy. (Moretti collaborated with three women on the script.)

Here is a woman with a sick mother (a former language teacher loved and respected by her students), a husband she is separated from, a lover she has just left and a teenage daughter who causes her the usual problems (none of which are really problems). With all of this to contend with, Margherita is also in the middle of making a film with a temperamental Hollywood actor played by John Turturro. The only stable supporter in all of this is Margherita’s brother Giovanni (Moretti) who has taken leave from work to look after his mother.

Margherita has an angry exchange with the Hollywood actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro). In the background her daughter looks on.

Margherita has an angry exchange with the Hollywood actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro). In the background her daughter looks on.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Mia Madre having only seen about half of one of Moretti’s films before. On the one hand I expected a female-centred melodrama (grandmother-mother-daughter) but on the other a commentary of some kind on filmmaking. Somehow Moretti manages to bring these two rather different kinds of narratives together. The ‘film within a film’ (the title of which I couldn’t quite distinguish on the clapperboard) is a social drama about industrial relations with Turturro as the new owner of a factory attempting to lay off a significant proportion of the workforce in the face of their determined resistance. In relation to this I was reminded of Jean-Luc Godard’s films such as British Sounds (1970, a panning shot along a factory production line) and Tout Va Bien (1972, a factory sit-in by workers). I also thought about Le mépris (1963) and making an American-financed film at Cinecitta and also Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) in which an American ‘runaway production’ is filmed in Rome. None of these is directly referenced but Moretti perhaps refers to his own left politics and casts a satirical glance towards the director’s sense of political worth or cynicism about her own position. A recurring motif is the idea of the actor “standing next to the character”. Margherita admits that although she instructs her actors in this manner, she doesn’t really know what it means – yet Margherita Buy as the director to some extent manages to do this. The way in which the film within a film – the mise en abîme – actually works is interesting. Some characters in ‘real life’ such as Federico, Margherita’s husband, and Vittorio, her lover seem to be doubled by characters or crew in the film she is making – i.e. they look a little like them. She herself reveals her ‘true’ personality in the way she reacts towards what happens on the shoot – and in this sense she does present us with the ‘actor’ and ‘the character’. It’s a terrific performance by Margherita Buy.

Giovanni and Margherita and the cinema queue.

Giovanni and Margherita and the cinema queue.

But the main thrust of the narrative is how Margherita’s insecurity manifests itself in a series of dreams, memories and nightmares in which she re-visits her past and possibly ‘sees’ the future. These are carefully edited into the more mundane ‘real’ episodes in her story. Music is important throughout and helps create the melodrama with pieces by Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and Ólafur Arnalds. For me one of the most memorable scenes is a dream sequence in which Margherita is outside a cinema with her brother. There is a never-ending queue of people waiting to get into the cinema and she walks along the queue meeting her younger self and her mother – while Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ plays on the soundtrack. I’m a sucker for Cohen on a soundtrack and there is something about his poetry and its delivery that seems to work very well.

So, how does all this fit together? As a melodrama the narrative makes Margherita suffer in an unusual way. The other characters are generally very well disposed towards her. Their actions do cause her problems indirectly but it is often because of the way that she reacts that she aggravates the situation and begins to lose control. This seems to be the way in which Moretti is able to critique himself as a director and how he dealt with his feelings around his own mother’s death. Giovanni seems to be the brother who is almost saintly in his self-sacrifice but who criticises Margherita both explicitly and implicitly – although in a gentle and civilised way. This is a very complex film narrative and it is going to require re-viewings. I realise that I have said little about John Turturro’s performance as the Hollywood actor which many reviewers found to be very funny. Certainly there were scenes in which his performance style created a sudden change in tone  and it was impressive, but much of the time I found it difficult to watch because I invested so much in Margherita and I felt her frustration.

Mia Madre goes into my small group of favourites from 2015’s releases. At some point I will watch Nanni Moretti’s earlier films. In the UK the film is in cinemas and on Curzon’s online download service.

Trailer (Jarvis Cocker on the soundtrack):

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