After his autobiographical chapters “Caro Diario” and “Aprile,” Nanni Moretti returns with his first full-fledged narrative feature in 12 years, “The Son’s Room,” a delicate drama of pain and grief in the wake of family tragedy. Stripped not only of Moretti’s customary narcissism and smug satisfaction but also of sociological and political concerns, this refined, uncharacteristic work cuts deep in other ways, reflecting a new maturity in the director and an emotional resonance that lasts well beyond the end credits. While devotees expecting Moretti’s wry worldview may feel shortchanged, others will find this a profoundly moving experience, giving it fuel to cross borders into the arthouse niche.
The drama bears some similarity to French director Francois Ozon’s recent “Under the Sand,” a considerable shift to a more sober, controlled style and classical approach. Both films deal intelligently with sudden death and bereavement, though Moretti’s arguably is the more heart-wrenching, focusing on parents’ reaction to the loss of an adolescent child.
Moretti previously reflected on personal suffering and the agony of being caught up in uncontrollable events in “Doctors,” the memorable closing episode of “Caro Diario.” But his work here is far more exposed and affecting. “The Son’s Room” recalls the melancholy intensity of Mimmo Calopresti’s “The Second Time,” which Moretti produced and starred in and which screened in competition at Cannes in 1996. “Room” also is strongly tipped to play the Palais in May.
Moretti’s alter ego this time is psychiatrist Giovanni, another investigator of the human condition. Abandoning the director’s beloved native Rome, story unfolds in a provincial seaside town, where Giovanni runs a successful practice from a studio adjoining his pristine, book-lined apartment.
Opening reels are devoted to establishing Giovanni’s orderly, well-nourished family life with his wife, Paola (Laura Morante): Their marital harmony is underlined in a tender sex scene, another first for a Moretti film. They also have two smart, communicative teenage kids, Irene (Jasmine Trinca) and Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice). But the family’s tranquillity is shattered when Andrea is killed in a diving accident.
The foundation-laying for this sudden tragedy is especially subtle as editor Esmeralda Calabria cuts dexterously between the four family members’ pursuits on a sunny Sunday morning. Homing in on brutal technicalities such as the coffin being welded shut and its lid being screwed down, with sound magnified to penetrating extremes, the film begins, roughly a half-hour in, to exercise a gut-level emotional impact that rarely lets up.
Giovanni opted out of a morning jog with Andrea to respond to an emergency call from a patient, a choice then replayed obsessively in his mind. That obsessive streak drives a wedge between Giovanni and his wife, who externalizes her grief in other ways, as does Irene, notably in a powerful scene in which she becomes aggressive during a school basketball match. Giovanni also finds it impossible to continue with his work.
As the family becomes increasingly divided, an external figure lands on their doorstep, drawing all three like magnets. Having met and bonded instantly with Andrea during a holiday romance the previous summer, Arianna (Sofia Vigliar) knows nothing of his death until Paola phones her after reading a love letter and ends up providing the family with a kind of antidote for its pain.
Despite a shoot interrupted by illness, industry strikes and location disputes, the drama is elaborated with organic fluidity thanks to the perceptiveness and economy of Linda Ferri, Moretti and Heidrun Schleef’s screenplay. All the principal characters display a depth that hints at the wealth of unspoken thought and emotion behind their words and actions.
Moretti’s habitual leftist political agenda is absent but many of his customary obsessions reappear, either jokingly, like his passion for running shoes, or more seriously, through the ailments of Giovanni’s patients. Though these characters provide some amusing asides, the analysis scenes generally are less interesting than those centering on the family.
As an actor, Moretti has often been too uptight and self-aware to fully inhabit a character. His own screen persona is still very much present here but there’s also a new sense of vulnerability and humility in his understated performance.
Morante (who partnered with Moretti in “Bianca” and “Sogni d’oro”) is deeply moving in a similarly measured turn; her confused rush of joy and anguish when Paola opens Arianna’s letter is heartbreaking. Newcomer Trinca more than holds her own within the seasoned company, while Sanfelice confirms the promise he showed in Gabriele Muccino’s “But Forever in My Mind.”
Maintaining the quiet, unshowy style evident in every aspect of the operation, craft contributions are impeccable, especially Giuseppe Lanci’s crisp, subtle camerawork and Nicola Piovani’s lovely, unerringly gentle score. Discerning use is made of two key songs, Brian Eno’s “By This River” and singer Caterina Caselli’s version of Paolo Conte’s “Insieme a te non ci sto piu,” heard previously in Moretti’s “The Mass Is Ended.”