Margherita, a director in the middle of an existential crisis, has to deal with the inevitable and still unacceptable loss of her mother.
Losing a mother can affect the psyche in a particularly primal way, leaving even the middle-aged feeling lost or orphaned. Italian writer-director Nanni Moretti’s autobiographically inspired Mia Madre captures this dislocation in an intriguing – though sometimes frustrating – way.
Margherita (Margherita Buy, playing a female version of Moretti) is a harried film director in the middle of making her latest political drama – a dreary-looking story about rioting factory workers. She’s struggling to keep her mind on the job because her beloved mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), is in the hospital, growing weaker by the day. Meanwhile, Margherita’s live-in-lover is moving out, accusing her of coldness, and her teenage daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini), is failing Latin at school.
Rushing backwards and forwards from film set to hospital ward, it’s no wonder Margherita has anxious dreams of flooded apartments, heated arguments and minor car accidents. Or are they dreams? They’re so intricately woven into realistic scenes that we’re not always sure. Her visits with her mother’s doctors are also exercises in confusion as she tries to understand the medical lingo, as if by doing so she might prevent the inevitable.
Whether the brilliant and charismatic John Turturro belongs in this movie is debatable, but there’s no doubt he steals the show.
In stark contrast to this hectic denial, Margherita’s brother, Giovanni (played by Moretti himself in a mostly peripheral role), seems calmly accepting of the fact he must put aside all other tasks, and even quit his job entirely, to help his mother die. Perhaps it would have been better to see more of this character and his quiet virtue.
Moretti has dealt with the subject of grief before in his stunning 2001 Palme d’Or winning film La Stanza del Figlio (The Son’s Room). This is a much less controlled film, its tone uncomfortably veering from hilarity without clear purpose. The relationship between Margherita, Giovanni and their ailing mother never feels totally convincing, or like it’s the centre of the film, the way the title suggests it should be.
Whether the brilliant and charismatic John Turturro belongs in this movie is debatable, but there’s no doubt he steals the show, providing welcome comic relief as Barry Huggins, a mouthy, high profile American actor brought in to star, but unable to remember a single line or follow direction. Barry’s manic energy and mammoth ego add colour to the somewhat drab production. A scene in which he tries to drive a car, directed by Margherita through remote microphone on a trailer in front of him, is comic gold.
Still, there are glimpses of gentle wisdom and some memorably tender scenes in Mia Madre, which won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes in 2015. Patronised by nurses in her hospital bed, Ada tells her granddaughter, ‘The older you get, the dumber they think you are. Instead, you understand more.’ There’s also a sweet moment when Margherita and her ex-husband teach their daughter to drive a motor scooter, to the strains of Jarvis Cocker’s ‘Baby’s coming back to me’. It’s as if in these rare moments, the meaning that eludes the director is right in front of her, yet she’s too busy – like the film itself – to see it.