After the papal crisis of “We Have a Pope” and the political crisis of “The Caiman,” Nanni Moretti returns to more personal crises with “My Mother,” a classic Moretti tale in which a director (played by the helmer’s recent muse Margherita Buy) approaches meltdown. Though the sexes are switched, and artistic embellishments reinforce the story’s fictional nature, few will fail to recognize autobiographical elements involving a filmmaker with on-set issues coping fitfully with her mom’s fatal illness. Moretti’s exploration of loss is unquestionably affecting, and “My Mother” has powerful moments, yet they’re not always well integrated with the broadly pitched moviemaking scenes, featuring a caricaturish John Turturro. Offshore sales are certain, but critical support will determine how big the splash.
Comparisons will inevitably be made with Moretti’s “The Son’s Room,” a more heart-wrenching, focused work that dealt with the incomprehensible tragedy of a child’s death; in his latest, the director touches instead on the more imaginable loss of a mother, thereby homing in on an especially sensitive chord in Italy, where Mamma is all. While mother worship is rarely on the same level in the rest of the world, the encroaching mortality of a parent who represents unconditional love and safety acts as a trigger to the emotions, and Moretti’s approach, sweet and sentimental but not saccharine, has a universal appeal.
The mamma in question, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), is a former teacher (like Moretti’s own mother) hospitalized for cardiac problems; her heart has become too big. Though her daughter, Margherita (Buy), is stressing out on the set of her new movie, she still makes daily bedside visits, where she’s confronted by a feeling of total helplessness. Her brother, Giovanni (Moretti), is the calmer, more organized one, a reliable point of much-needed stability when so much seems to be spinning out of Margherita’s control (ironically, his groundedness increases her sense of inadequacy).
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Shooting on her labor-rights drama is already feeling uninspired, but the real headache comes when American actor Barry Huggins (Turturro) arrives, playing the factory boss about to lay off a large chunk of his workforce. It’s hard to know quite what Moretti wants to do with this character — Barry is brash, boastful, entitled yet insecure. He’s the kind of American with a superficial love of the Italian language but a hesitant handle on its rules, the sort who brags of his relationship with Kubrick but never actually made a film with “Stanley.” He’s also a lousy actor, so much so that there’s never an understanding of why Margherita or her producers brought him over in the first place. As good as Turturro is in the role, one senses the only reason Barry exists is to provide a few cackles and temper the encroaching sadness: He’s there for rhythm, but the rhythm is slightly off.
At least he gives Margherita a reason to laugh occasionally, as her command of the film shoot is slipping as quickly as her control over her personal life. She breaks things off with actor-b.f. Vittorio (Enrico Ianniello, curiously styled as a Moretti lookalike); her daughter Livia (Beatrice Mancini) is flunking Latin; and she’s having troubling dreams, the latter nicely handled in their destabilizing play with reality. In many ways, Margherita’s skid toward a nervous breakdown is more affecting than the sadness of her mother’s dying, thanks to the part being better written than Ada’s rather generic older-woman role.
Scripting flaws like this are the pic’s Achilles heel, and several times Moretti and his fellow writers lead viewers toward an idea, but stop short of developing it toward a meaningful end. Margherita tells her actors they need to simultaneously be the character they’re playing and exist alongside that character — confusing instructions that become meaningless when she admits she herself doesn’t know what they signify. Are auds therefore meant to conclude that Margherita is a bad director (it certainly seems that way)? Also, is a diatribe the jilted Vittorio delivers, scathingly dissecting her egotism, meant to show up his own poor judgment, since the narcisissm he speaks of isn’t part of her visible makeup?
As an actress, Buy long ago mastered neuroses grounded in self-doubt: It’s a psychological profile that blends with Moretti’s usual onscreen persona, and with her nervous reactions and large, distress-filled eyes, she delivers a moving performance as a woman heading toward emotional collapse. (A post-nightmare scene in which she discovers her apartment has flooded is especially distressing.) Moretti’s role is small but effective, while the problems with Turturro’s character have nothing to do with the actor himself.
Visually, “My Mother” makes subtle distinctions between the straightforward lensing of the film shoot, both behind and in front of the cameras, and a more intimate, subjective approach to Margherita’s personal world, investing the nightmare sequences with a dreamlike hyperrealism. Moretti’s affinity for Arvo Part and Philip Glass is again indulged, combined with songs by Olafur Arnalds and others.