Mia Madre review: The mother of all personal stories
Director Nanni Moretti returns with a bittersweet paean to death, acceptance, and parenthood, writes Andrew Johnston
Mia Madre - 'My Mother' - is about a movie director (Margherita Buy) shooting a film while her world falls down around her. The French-Italian production comes courtesy of Nanni Moretti, who won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2001 for the intensely affecting The Son's Room. This is a lighter work, not least because it features a comedic treat of a supporting performance from John Turturro, playing a caricature of himself as a spoilt Hollywood star.
That said, Mia Madre isn't a comedy. The anxious, selfish, bad-tempered Margherita (the character shares Buy's forename) is divorced and in the midst of breaking up with her actor boyfriend. Her teenage daughter Livia (Beatrice Mancini) is causing headaches, while most disturbingly of all, her elderly mother Ada (Guilia Lazzarini) is dying in hospital, and Margherita's brother Giovanni (Moretti himself) has given up his own job to look after her. Cue themes of sadness, loss, guilt and sacrifice.
Buy and Moretti gel well as the troubled siblings. If he seems a little subdued, it's perhaps because he has chosen to play down his part in order to let his lead actress dominate. And dominate she does, essaying a marvellous creation, Margherita staying human and sympathetic despite her insensitivity, sense of entitlement and denial of reality.
When a domestic crisis looms, the middle-aged professional must go and stay in her mother's apartment, where she grew up, and the experience triggers mental turmoil. Moretti brilliantly flips audience expectations by revealing the titular sick parent to be far from a benign, old dear, but a domineering intellectual, who regards her adult offspring as something approaching idiots. "The older you are, the dumber they think you are, when actually it's the opposite," Ada spits from her hospital bed at one point.
Meanwhile, Mia Madre's film-within-the-film is a highbrow, social-realist piece about striking factory workers entitled Noi Siamo Qui (We Are Here). Although she acts steely and dispassionate on set, Margherita's private life can't help but seep into her work. It's an interesting commentary on the difficulty for creative types of separating oneself from one's art, and whether this is even desirable.
But the highlight remains Turturro's Barry Huggins, a big baby of a man, who has nightmares that Kevin Spacey is trying to kill him and reels out anecdotes about Stanley Kubrick that serve as unwitting metaphors to Margherita. Barry is at once charming and dull, and gives Turturro his funniest role in some years. It's as over-the-top as his Adam Sandler gigs, but much more astute and entertaining.
Meanwhile, Moretti's casting of a woman as his alter-ego in what is undoubtedly an autobiographical tale for Mia Madre's director and co-writer (the filmmaker lost his own mother during the making of 2011's We Have a Pope) is a welcome nod to gender politics in cinema.