Mia Madre

Italy (2015) Dir. Nanni Moretti

Families. You can’t live with them, you can’t live without them but the worst thing is having regrets about one’s relationship with our parents which is brought to the fore at the worst of times.

Inspired by and made after the death of his own mother which occurred while filming 2011’s We Have A Pope, Italian auteur Nanni Moretti effectively bares his soul while taking a few not so subtle shots at the industry which feeds him to express the difficulty of being a busy creative person while dealing with the pain of a dying parent.

Representing Moretti is Margherita (Margherita Buy), a film director midway through shooting her latest social commentary drama whose mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) has been hospitalised with a debilitating illness. Margherita has just split up from her toyboy boyfriend who is a cast member in her film, while she is divorced from the father of her daughter Livia (Beatrice Mancini).

To further add to her woes, the Italian-American actor hired to boost her film’s profile, Barry Huggins (John Turturro), keeps forgetting his lines and delivers a substandard performance causing tensions on set. With Margherita being so busy her brother Giovanni (Moretti) takes time off work to tend to their mother, leaving Margherita to feel increasingly guilty about her time spent with Ada.

It may not sound like a particularly cheery film but the chaos of the filming with Huggins provides much needed levity to the proceedings while allowing Moretti to chart the gradual breakdown of Margherita’s hitherto strong façade. How much of this Moretti actually went through himself is unknown with no overt signs of this being an autobiographical film – aside from many of his later mother’s genuine artefacts being used – but a sense of personal attachment is palpable.

Yet Moretti is able to keep this objective and relates this tale from a safe distance so we can all understand the underlying emotion and empathise where necessary. Parental loss is something we all go through in our lives but how we deal with it is of course wholly personal and differs from case to case. In this case, Giovanni seems to be more in control than his sister although the truth is he is winging it, while Margherita can’t shake the guilt that haunts her on a daily basis.

The narrative from Margherita’s point of view is non-linear, flitting between present day and the memories of some of the more recent and strained moments with her mother. For example, Margherita catches her mother out driving knowing she shouldn’t and offer to park the car for her, proceeding to drive it repeatedly into a wall to remove future temptation away from Ada.

Margherita isn’t intent on being so mean spirited and hardhearted but the parallel pressures of her fraught film shoot are taking their toll on her patience. Yet Ada bears everything with grace and dignity, even the inevitability of being hospitalised, opting to teach granddaughter Livia Latin until her final breath. Yet as Ada gradually loses her strength Margherita finally begins to find hers again.

An interesting juxtaposition of Ada’s suffering is found in Barry Huggins, an astoundingly bad actor who claims he worked with Kubrik (he didn’t) and is full of his own importance. It transpires he too has a problem which is revealed later in the film, which unlike Ada he tries to cover up and blame everyone else for instead of facing up to it. However his pomposity and on set failure do provide much lighthearted humour while offering a satirical insight into the behind the camera happenings of a film.

One of the more subtle references to the parent-daughter relationship is born out of a domestic issue when Margherita’s flat is flooded one night. With nowhere to go during the clean up, she stays at Ada’s empty apartment – in other words, good old mum to the rescue again. When Livia comes to stay she wears one of Ada’s dressing gowns which upsets Margherita and it is this subconscious realisation of the attachment she has with Ada which helps put her feelings into perspective.

It’s not entirely difficult to view this as two different films in one, with the film shoot being an entertaining story in its own right and the drama of Ada’s illness being the dark to the former’s light. Yet they are necessary intertwined not just to complement each other but to paint a complete picture of Margherita’s mind set and her emotional journey as one scenario slowly infringes on the other.

While an astute observation by Moretti in his writing of the character, it befalls to Margherita Bay to embody this complex person on screen and her performance is superbly nuanced and desperately passionate. Her on set outbursts are pitch perfect comic tantrums of verbal and physical apoplexy, the intensity of which is carried over in the sheer emotional fragility of the heavier scenes.

Ada is the emotional centre of the film and though Giulia Lazzarini has less screen time than her co-stars, each scene is treated as a precious moment through her deft and heartbreaking essaying of this slowly fading woman. There will likely be comparisons made Lazzarini’s performance to Emmanuelle Riva’s stunning turn in Amour which is less lazy rhetoric and more a compliment to Lazzarini.

John Turturro seems to have a blast as Barry Huggins, the irony not lost on him that his role in this film is exactly that of Huggins which makes his failure and shortcomings a delicious feast for the audience. Moretti may limit his own screen time as Giovanni but his presence is a suitably poignant foil for his on edge on screen sister.

Mia Madre may be a deeply personal and cathartic film for Moretti but he is sharing his pain with us and not inflicting it upon us, reaching out and empathising with anyone else who has been in the same position. Quirky, warm and touching.


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