Director Nanni Moretti/2016
For fictional Italian film director Margherita (played by Margherita Buy), life is not getting any easier! She is in the midst of filming a film (again fictional) called Noi Siamo qui (We are Here) about workers fighting against their oppressive employer for better wages, but the title of the fictional film she is shooting feels more appropriate for her place in life, and feeling stuck right where she is.
A divorced mother of a teenage daughter, Margherita has just left her latest partner, and she is also dealing with her sick mother who has just been diagnosed with a terminal condition. All of this is going on behind the scenes in her personal life, and her work behind the camera is not any easier. Creatively, she is in a rut. The film is not working like she would like, and this is being compounded by the difficult American lead actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro), whose Italian is not as strong as it should be for the role, and who is on his last legs as an actor, recalling the glory days of when he worked with the late great Stanley Kubrick (which he never did), while belittling the film they are currently shooting.
The actual director of this film, Nanni Moretti, has put his personal touches all over Mia Madre. Having written the script during his actual mother’s sickness, the script has a very authentic feel to it that does not feel like a studio’s contrived effort to deal with a real subject like loss, regret, and the feelings of not living up to one’s potential. Here, each situation rings true, and the character of Barry adds much humor, albeit through frustrating his director Margherita, to an otherwise difficult subject matter such as dealing with loss.
Mia Madre (My Mother) is a rare film that shows you life as it really looks, rather than what films too often believe it looks like. It just gets it right. It is affirming, challenging, sad, and surprisingly funny.
Margherita Buy is so strong in this performance, balancing her character’s roles of being a professional director who must stay focused on their film’s strenuous shooting schedules, and in holding to her vision of what her film will say with the very private struggle she is having to deal with all that her life is throwing at her.
As a director, she is always telling her actors to “stand beside their character” when performing the scene. Most don’t know what she means, but she obviously is wanting the real person behind the character to be in the scene as much as the character they are portraying. For her, this might mean that as a director, the world of her private life is right next to her, even when she is trying to compartmentalize it. Of course when these two worlds collide, as they will eventually do, she is able to convey the many multifaceted emotions that give us a realistic and believable portrayal of a woman who is simultaneously the captain of her own ship and someone who may be lost at sea. For her performance, Margherita Buy won her 5th David di Donatello Best Actress Award (Italy’s equivalent of the Academy Award), and it is more than justified.
John Turturro continues to make the case for why he is such an underrated, yet powerful actor. If you have only seen him in films like Transformers, or Anger Management, his turns in smaller films like Fearless, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Barton Fink, or this year’s Hands of Stone, are a good place to start to truly see the range that he has. Here, he is able to balance the charismatic caricature of a Hollywood narcissist, with someone who is feeling like a fish out of water (his scene being filmed while driving a car in Rome are hilarious, and most of his scenes were improvised). At first his Italian language skills seem strong and convincing as he tries to prove his Italian bonafide’s to his fellow crew, but eventually he demonstrates that he is really failing miserably. Like his fictional film’s title Noi Siamo qui (We are Here), he also is stuck, like Margherita, both personally and professionally.
The more touching aspects of the film involve Marherita’s interactions with her friends and family behind the scenes of her fictional film. The times she is at the hospital with her mother and brother; when she is trying to relate to her daughter who she doesn’t seem to connect to anymore; and in the conversations she has with her ex-lover that reveal her true personal shortcomings are all moments that grab the audience and draw them into the story in an intimate way. Most heartbreaking is a scene involving Margherita’s daughter as she overhears some devastating news from a late-night phone call that her father answers. Again, all of it rings true, as it would if this were your real life.
Mia Madre (My Mother) is a rare film that shows you life as it really looks, rather than what films too often believe it looks like. It just gets it right. It is affirming, challenging, sad, and surprisingly funny. At the heart of the film, just as it must have been in writer/director Nanni Moretti’s life, is the ever lurking presence of the person who inspired both the film’s writing and its effect on our protagonist, and that is the character of the mother, Ada (Guilia Lazzarini). Even though much of her role is confined to a bed at a hospital, we get a multi-layered performance that helps us see this dying woman in a light that highlights all of her life’s greatest achievements, even if it only comes mostly through dialogue.
It is her legacy that will remain, and we get a glimpse of that in the many students who still come to visit her, or through the Latin lessons she gives her granddaughter, revealing a depth of intellect and knowledge that so many would miss if they just saw her as another aging soul to ignore. Mia Madre is a testament to our legacy, and the importance of sitting down and hearing people’s stories so that we are enriched by the beauty that is in each individual, rather than looking past them in the hustle and bustle our busy daily lives. In the end, maybe the title of the fictional film within Mia Madre, Noi Siamo qui, is not about being stuck at all, but realizing that “we are here” now, and should enjoy the moments we have in front of us, so that we can truly look back on our life without regret.
Mia Madre opens in limited release.