Release Date: August 26, 2016
Director: Nanni Moretti
Runtime: 106 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
There are two fairly compelling stories in Mia Madre. The first is of Margherita (Margherita Buy), an Italian film director who is faced with the unenviable task of shooting a movie about a union strike at a factory in an economic environment where the subject matter hits too close to home. On top of that, she also has to deal with the manic personality of Barry Huggins (John Tuturro), an eccentric Hollywood actor who has been brought on to a play a supporting role in the film. He struggles with his Italian and often slides off into melodramatic rants, retelling embellished story after embellished story whilst growing progressively more frustrated and bringing down everyone’s stamina.
The second story also follows Margherita, as she struggles to come to terms with the imminent death of her elderly mother, Ada (Gulia Lazzarini). She has to reconcile with her brother Giovanni (director Nanni Moretti) and somehow prepare herself for a definitive emotional trauma, the equivalent of an impending car crash that you know is coming but can’t steer away from. Both of these plotlines are interesting and well thought out on their own merits, but Moretti has decided to combine them, crafting a new element – the struggles of a woman who must somehow remain a dedicated professional despite immense stress in her home life.
There are fleeting notes of a thought-provoking outcome here, but there is a much more prominent oil-and-water clash between the two sides. Amusing scenes featuring a wild performance from Turturro, perhaps loudly demanding expensive champagne for a scene otherwise featuring a prop bottle (before ultimately revealing he was joking) uncomfortably grind against conversations about Ada’s quickly deteriorating condition and the newfound problems that are encountered with each passing day. An intended balance between these moods is never achieved, and Mia Madre experiences a sour cognitive dissonance as a result.
Certainly Moretti is no stranger to tackling grief as a filmmaker. The Son’s Room, one of his most well known movies, approaches how a loss affects an entire family, and it does so in a painfully realistic and poignant way. That film can certainly be depressing, but it is never overwhelming, and, in totality, it adapts a definitively optimistic tone. More importantly, it is achieved naturally. Mia Madre is too disjointed within its own parts to ever achieve any type of harmony in that sense. That cliché about the whole being less than the sum of its parts comes into play here.
And certainly those parts should be praised on their own merits. Margherita Buy is a compelling leading actress. She is able to look through the fragmented screenplay and find what Moretti intends to depict. The walls are closing in on her as the stress levels of both her personal and professional lives are increased at exponential levels.
A scene in which Turturro’s character finds himself unable to act because of ostensibly inalterable circumstances sees Margherita progressively doubt her own choices as she begins to break down before her crew, criticizing one for following her instructions without question. The intent and meaning behind her emotional instability is clear, but Buy acts with a degree of understandable gradualism throughout the scene, leading to an explosive ending, which comes clearly yet unexpectedly.
From scene to scene, things appear to work somewhat smoothly, but it all gets much rougher when those scenes are collated. It’s a shame, really – all of the elements are present in Mia Madre to make for a wonderful movie, but Moretti makes a mistake in how he structures it all, adopting a number of formal techniques that are simply too inclined to cancel each other out.
There are swaths of greatness, like Margherita dreaming of walking past a line outside a movie theater and conversing with versions of herself and her loved ones from the past, which work when contained within themselves and their immediate contexts within the plot, but that never congeal into something that can be taken with the same fluency.