Sweet Dreams (2016)

Marco Bellochio’s Sweet Dreams is a journalist’s belated emotional coming of age as he investigates the death of his mother.

Trying to Awake

by Alexa Dalby

Sweet Dreams

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Based on Massimo Gramellini’s autobiographical novel Sweet Dreams, Little One, Marco Bellochio’s film is a the story of deeply personal quest to understand his childhood that consumes a Turin journalist, Massimo (Valerio Mastandrea, Pasolini). Though the death of his beloved mother when he was nine has been a troubling but unacknowledged mystery all his life, it’s only when his elderly father dies and he has to clear the family home – going through old boxes of photographs – that he is finally prompted to investigate.

As he revisits the empty flat after many years’ absence, we see a flashback to the closeness of his relationship with his beautiful and lively young mother (Barbara Ronchi), full of joy as she and the little boy do the twist together in the Sixties. But when she apparently dies suddenly, he sees police taking his father away and none of his adult relatives will explain to him what has happened. Though he continues to live with his father (Guido Caprino) through childhood and adolescence (played by Nicolò Cabras and Dario Dal Pero), his mother’s death is never explained and this void colours their relationship from then on and the mother/son relationship repeats itself in relationships as he grows up.

Massimo, as an adult, becomes a macho type of war correspondent and yet his personal life remains blank. The start of his emotional thawing is being asked to write a cathartic agony aunt reply to a reader’s problem page letter about his mother on the newspaper he works for when he returns to Italy. And then a compassionate doctor Elisa (Bérénice Bejo, The Childhood of a Leader) whom he meets in the aftermath of his father’s death is the first person in his life able to help him confront his demons.

Sweet Dreams is a sentimental, belated coming-of-age as an adult story, unavoidably deeply personal and with the intrinsically Italian sensibility of a mother’s influence on her son. Bérénice Bejo injects life into the film but its leading actor seems to lack the charisma necessary to make this emotionally compelling rather than merely self-indulgent and rather turgid.

Sweet Dreams premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 24 February 2017 in the UK.

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