One of the more satisfying films of recent years from veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio, "The Nanny" is a sober, unerringly controlled psychological drama about motherhood and mental frailty set in the early 1900s.

One of the more satisfying films of recent years from veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio, “The Nanny” is a sober, unerringly controlled psychological drama about motherhood and mental frailty set in the early 1900s. Adapted from the novella by Luigi Pirandello, the film for better or worse bears many of the customary traits of the director’s work — the coldly cerebral approach, exasperatingly slow rhythms and penchant for psychoanalytical discourse. But these are largely countered by the warmth and immediacy of the central theme of maternity, the constant motif of breast-feeding and by three compelling lead performances. While the market for foreign-language literary costume dramas of this type has shrunk steadily in the past 20 years, European arthouse demand should be marginally greater than for Bellocchio’s previous Cannes competition entry, “The Prince of Homburg.”

In tailoring Pirandello’s novella to his own needs, Bellocchio, with co-scripter Daniela Ceselli, has transformed the male protagonist from a parliamentarian to a neuropsychiatrist working in an institute for the mentally disturbed. While this would appear to give the director carte blanche to burden the slender tale with numbing psych-speak, the occasional pedagogical dialogue intrudes only rarely.

Set against a backdrop of subversive uprisings and police repression, the story centers on well-heeled Professor Mori (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) and his young wife, Vittoria (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), and the instability that grips her mind and the couple’s relationship following the birth of their son. When the baby refuses its mother’s breast, Mori enters into a contract with illiterate country girl Annetta (Maya Sansa) to feed and care for the child, requiring her to abandon her own newborn son.

Deeply depressed after the birth, Vittoria is further jarred by the wet nurse’s presence. While the girl is natural and instinctive with the baby, immediately establishing a loving rapport, Vittoria is awkward and removed, incapable not only of providing physical care but also of showing maternal love and affection. Feeling inadequate and redundant in her own home, she asks Mori to dismiss the girl. When he refuses, Vittoria withdraws without explanation to the country. Despite his professional experience dealing with emotional disturbances, Mori is unable to intervene and help her.

The film’s first half is powered by the uneasy dynamic and class conflict between the two women. Annetta is shy but decisive and self-assured while Vittoria veers nervously between vague animosity, jealousy, indifference, proprietary authority and threatened vulnerability. Mori hovers on the outside until Vittoria’s departure brings him into closer contact with the nanny.

Unable to read a letter from her husband, an imprisoned political agitator, Annetta persuades Mori to teach her to read and write. The girl’s spontaneity gradually uncovers a softer, more human side beneath the professor’s earnest, clinical manner.

Plot factors outside the central triangle — the political skirmishes in which peasants from the country rebel against class discrimination; the hospital and psych patient interludes; the ideological crisis of Mori’s fellow doctor (the director’s son and producer Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, in his first acting role), who falls for a patient and is drawn into the insurrection — remain almost extraneous background elements to the intimate drama. But these strands add texture to the script’s view of middle-class malaise and society in a state of ferment.

Heading a fine cast, Bentivoglio steers Mori from emotionally subdued, soft-spoken seriousness to warmth, openness and the rediscovery of an intuitive side. Bruni Tedeschi has perhaps played too many weepy neurotics to make her work here seem entirely new, but the actress ably conveys the contradictions of a desperate woman unable to articulate her afflictions. In a quiet but effective turn, newcomer Sansa brings focus and intensity to the title character.

As always with Bellocchio’s films, the use of shadows and darkness is fundamental, both in Marco Dentici’s handsome production design and Giuseppe Lanci’s accomplished lensing, with most of the action arrestingly bathed in an atmospheric half-light.

The Nanny

Italian

Production

An Istituto Luce release (in Italy) of a Marco and Pier Giorgio Bellocchio presentation of a Filmalbatros production, in association with Istituto Luce in collaboration with RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana. (International sales: RAI Trade, Rome.) Produced by Pier Giorgio Bellocchio. Directed by Marco Bellocchio. Screenplay, Bellocchio, Daniela Ceselli; inspired by the novella by Luigi Pirandello.

Crew

Camera (Cinecitta color), Giuseppe Lanci; editor, Francesca Calvelli; music, Carlo Crivelli; art director, Marco Dentici; set decorator, Simona Migliotti; costume designer, Sergio Ballo; sound (Dolby Digital), Maurizio Argentieri; assistant director, Daniela Ceselli; casting, Fabiola Banzi. Reviewed at Quattro Fontane Cinema, Rome, May 6, 1999. (In Cannes Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Professor Mori - Fabrizio Bentivoglio Vittoria - Valeria Bruni Tedeschi Annetta - Maya Sansa Maddalena - Jacqueline Lustig Nardi - Pier Giorgio Bellocchio Mori's patient - Michele Placido
With: Gisella Burinato, Elda Alvigini, Eleonora Danco, Fabio Camilli.
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