A very personal film, Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre sees a film director cope with the death of her mother whilst shooting a film with an uncontrollable star.
All About My Motherby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Known for starring as versions of himself in his films, this time director Nanni Moretti has created a female alter ego in actress Margherita Buy, who he worked with previously in Habemus Papam. She is Margherita, a film director beset and bogged down by problems on set, while meanwhile she is in denial about her mother (Giulia Lazzarini) slowly dying in hospital, in the midst of problems with her teenage daughter, ex-husband and a break-up with her lover. Moretti himself plays her brother Giovanni, taking over caring for her mother.
The uninspired film she’s directing is about a factory strike. Its star, the factory boss about to lay off his workforce, is an over-the-top, comical but troubled Italian-American so-called star Barry Huggins (Coen Brothers regular, John Turturro), who Margharita meets at the airport and drives to his hotel – where he routinely propositions her. As if Margherita didn’t already have enough problems, her imported star rampages uncontrollably, boisterous with extravagant, drunken delight at being in Italy, spouting unbelievable fantasies about his close relationship with Stanley Kubrick, and is totally unable to knuckle down to his role or learn his lines. His character – until a surprising revelation – provides the light relief between hospital vigils.
Margherita starts to doubt her abilities as a director – her film is lacklustre, she starts to feel everything is the same, and the confusing instructions she gives to her actors to about character – “I want to see the actor to one side of the person” – she realises she doesn’t even understand herself. Under too many conflicting pressures and approaching breakdown, Margherita’s daily life is a mixture of dreams, flashbacks and nightmares, and a growing feeling of emotional inadequacy. Her flat is flooded by a water leak and at first it’s unclear if this is a dream or reality. She is forced to go and live in her mother’s empty flat, where, distressingly, she is surrounded by a lifetime of memories and finds herself emotionally unable to cope.
Like all Moretti’s films, Mia Madre is autobiographical and personal. His mother died during the making of 2011’s Habemus Papam, as Margherita’s mother does here. Like his, Margherita’s mother was a classics scholar and the character in the film is presented as a kind of homage to her, as someone who has led a full and rewarding life, not a stereotypical old lady – “She taught us life and she stayed inside us.”
Overall Moretti is exploring in different ways what is the task of cinema, what is reality and how cinema interprets reality. The resulting disconnect can be emotionally painful. The scene where Huggins is supposed to be filmed driving a car is a high point of contradiction. In order to realistically film him driving, the car’s windscreen has to be fitted with cameras that obcure his vision and make it impossible to drive. Moretti’s characters in the film are both real and fake, and truths can be destructive. The director’s role is not an enviable one, and perhaps there can be no happy resolution, as a final close up on Margherita’s anguished face shows.
Mia Madre is released on 25th November 2015 in the UK