Italy’s famed devotion to the ideal of “mamma” is one of the peninsula’s notable characteristics, yet one would expect veteran director Marco Bellocchio to make something more of this national fixation than the teetering sentimentality of “Sweet Dreams.” Based on Massimo Gramellini’s successful novel, the film is composed of several exquisite stand-alone sequences unsatisfactorily strung together on a thin cord of mother love, in a story of a middle-aged man unable to overcome the loss of his mother when he was nine. Shifting between childhood vignettes suffused with a heart-warming glow and adult scenes of shut-down emotions and retarded development, “Sweet Dreams” will be Bellocchio’s most successful film at home for some time, but international play, despite probable sales, won’t be the stuff dreams are made of.
Those who’ve followed the wide-ranging helmer’s career will be surprised by the noticeable lack of substantive reflexivity: there’s really nothing underneath the sentiment but sentiment. That’s not to say emotion isn’t a good thing – on the contrary, but neither the naturalistic warmth of his understated duo “Sisters” and “Sisters Never,” nor the complexity and power of his recent “Blood of My Blood” is anywhere in evidence. For a director known for his nuanced portrayals of family life, he seems frustratingly disarmed by the all-powerful pedestal-placing model of Mother.
Things start well: the opening five minutes will instantly sweep the audience up in a honeyed glow, as little Massimo (Nicolò Cabras) is coaxed into dancing the Twist with his joyful mother (Barbara Ronchi). Next they’re watching the 1965 “Belphégor” on TV, with Massimo huddling for protective reassurance in his mother’s arms. In the scene that follows however, something is wrong: mamma is preoccupied, and shortly thereafter Massimo is told by a thick-headed priest (Roberto Di Francesco) that his mother is with her guardian angel.
Massimo’s father (Guido Caprino) hasn’t the warmth of his late spouse, and Mita, the woman he brings in to look after his boy, has a slight physical resemblance to the deceased, but the similarities end there. As a young teen, Massimo (Dario Dal Pero) continues to feel the pang of loss, especially when he sees super-rich friend Enrico (Dylan Ferrario) in rather too-physical embrace with his mother (Emanuelle Devos in a small role).
Such scenes from childhood are interlaced with Massimo as an adult (Valerio Mastrandrea) in the 1990s, shuttling between the moment he needs to empty out his father’s apartment to earlier incidents as a young journalist first covering sports, then the conflict in Bosnia, and finally as a sort of philosophical agony aunt. Given the adult Massimo’s permanent state of hang-doggedness, it’s hard to quite believe his career track – why promote a reporter who seems barely to have the courage to formulate a question? Instead, he remains fixated on the loss of his mother, which everyone is aware of, yet no one bothers to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, a shrink might be of some help.
One of Bellocchio’s strengths has always been his ability to juggle disparate elements and successfully put them into the service of developing character: they acknowledge life’s messiness yet don’t feel messy themselves. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said here, which could possibly come from wanting to stick too closely to the novel. The Sarajevo sequences feel especially out of place; presumably they’re included to show Massimo’s disgust at a certain kind of sensationalized war reportage, but the section leaves no residue and adds nothing to the protagonist’s character.
Really the only time he exits from his shell of trauma is when he’s with doctor Elisa (Bérénice Bejo), a woman who exudes the kind of unaffected kind-heartedness that his mother once had. Every second Bejo is on screen, the atmosphere lights up (hers is one of the great smiles on contemporary screens), yet why on earth is Elisa romantically interested in this schlub? Though Mastandrea long ago mastered that unmade bed look, he can be exceptionally effective in the right role – here his ability to convey depth in depression is hampered by the script’s unsatisfying lack of focus. His scenes with his father (Caprino in bad aging make-up) are especially ill-conceived.
There are memorable moments, such as at the start, where little Massimo gets into the Twist on his mother’s encouragement, and a bookended dance scene where the adult Massimo lets rip on the dancefloor at a fancy anniversary party. Yet so much else doesn’t fit, despite the beautiful visuals of Bellocchio’s regular collaborator Daniele Ciprì. One sequence encapsulates the problem: a story is related of Simone (Fausto Russo Alesi), who hates his mother (Piera Degli Esposti). He writes to the newspaper asking for advice, and Massimo is assigned to answer. The reply overflows with sentimentality about a mother’s position in a son’s life, and Carlo Crivelli’s score suddenly wells up with manipulative schmaltz. Though the tale gets a humorous bite at the end, the damage has been done, and mawkishness overwhelms the half-hearted corrective.