Nanni Moretti's latest film Mia Madre is a solid emotional voyage into what it means to face a parent's imminent death. Margherita Buy plays a film director who is making a movie about striking workers in a factory while her beloved mother (played with great dignity by theater actress Giulia Lazzarini) begins her descent to death. Throughout most of the film, Margherita (as she is called) stares with distraught blue eyes and seems on the edge of losing it. Occasionally, she does: she bursts into panicky tears when a utility man asks to see her mother's electricity statements; she paddles through a flood in her apartment, ineffectively dropping newspapers in the water; she wakes in terror in the middle of the night, having dreamed that her mother is already covered in shrouds. Throughout, her mother, hospitalized, remains calm and humorous.
At times, the film imitates its subject and seems almost too long: the powerlessness before the certainty of death, the visits to the dying mother in the hospital, begin to seem interminable, much as they might to people who are actually experiencing such a situation in "real life".
Yet -- in a brilliant move -- the structure of the film gives balance to the heavy subject: the camera regularly cuts away from the scenes of grief to the fictional film set, where actor Barry (John Turturro) with his wide infectious grin and playful antics steals the show. Turturro plays an American actor who comically (despite instructions) plays a stern Italian factory owner who refuses to listen to the workers. Throughout, "Barry" forgets, flubs, invents, or simply does not say his lines. The boisterous humor (the audience at Cannes burst out laughing) of these physically lively scenes provides an exuberant (and necessary) contrast to the despondency of the grieving family. We are emotionally drawn into both extremes, from tears to laughter.
Ultimately, it is life that wins in this confrontation with death. What we have is dignity, growth and a sense of "tomorrow". The mother in the film is a former Classics teacher, who will always be remembered by her students after her death. The film itself is a tribute, a testimony to the power of remembrance. Moretti's own mother was also a Classics teacher. The Latin and Greek books that we see on the shelves in the film are hers.
While the film director Margherita in the film claims, in her despair, to have lost confidence in her ability to make a meaningful film -- "to make sense of anything" -- it is clear that Nanni Moretti has not.
After the screening, I went to the "Mia Madre" premiere party, sponsored by Magnum Ice Cream, and happened upon a young film distributor on the beach, with a glass of champagne.
"How did you like the film?" I asked, curious whether this movie could speak to someone who is too young to have experienced the loss of an aged parent.
"I loved it!" the young man said exuberantly. "I absolutely loved it! You are right. I connect to nothing in the film -- I am not Italian, I have never lost anyone -- but I was so taken by these people! I was with them! I cried throughout. And I cried when it was over -- to realize I would no longer be with these characters. The film is a masterpiece, and today is a great day, just because I saw it."