Sweet Dreams (Fai bei sogni)

Italy (2016) Dir. Marco Bellocchio

I guess I was wrong in thinking that Pedro Almodóvar had the monopoly on films about relationships with mothers (Hitchcock’s Psycho notwithstanding) as this offering from Italy’s Marco Bellocchio illustrates. Unlike Almodóvar’s films, the garish warmth and pro-feminist attack suffused within are replaced by a lifetime of introspective anger and hurt in the tortured protagonist.

Dividing its focus between two eras twenty plus years apart, this is the story of Massimo, a young boy who lost his mother at an early age and grew up not knowing the truth of her death. Based on the best-selling autobiographical novel Sweet Dreams, Little One by Massimo Gramellini, the story begins in 1969 and nine year-old Massimo (Nicolò Cabras) happily dancing with his ebullient mother (Barbara Ronchi).

One night, after being put to bed by his mother, Massimo is suddenly woken up by a furore and finds his father (Guido Caprino) frantically running about the apartment. The next day, Massimo is told by a priest (Roberto Di Francesco) that his mother has flown to meet God, but the boy refuses to accept this, talking as though she was still alive until finally being told she died of a heart attack when he was older.

The story of adult Massimo (Valerio Mastandrea) runs through the early 1990’s, where he is now a newspaper journalist, covering the war in Sarajevo. Upon returning to Italy after witnessing these horrors, Massimo thinks he is having a heart attack and is treated by a doctor Elisa (Bérénice Bejo) who point blank says his concerns of a hereditary heart problem are unfounded, resulting in a new search to discovering the truth about his mother’s death.  

Apologies for pretty much covering the grander points of the whole plot there but the way the film is structured leaves me with little choice since the events of Massimo’s childhood beget his actions as an adult. In reality, the actual story is in the latter day segments whilst the flashbacks are a series of unrelated, only occasionally sequential occurrences from young Massimo’s life.

I have no knowledge as to whether Gramelini’s novel follows the same structure or of it runs chronologically like a memoir would, not that it makes any difference to being able to follow the story or enjoying the film, but this is a distinct case of two halves with the wistful saga of younger Massimo proving more compelling over the fraught drama of the adult years.

Massimo’s mother clearly adored her son as much as he adored her, and the majority of the scenes of them playing together are joyous and vibrant. They even share a common interest in a French horror TV series Belphégor, the main character later adopted by Massimo as his imaginary friend. Unfortunately, the relationship between father and son is less warm and connections are struggled to be made, even when finding common ground with football.

The crux of the matter here is that Massimo is a precocious child and whilst his mother recognised this, his father’s decision to withhold the truth about his mother’s death not only drive a wedge between them but also triggered a thirst for knowledge and truth in a number of different avenues in his son. Now in his early teens, Massimo (Dario Dal Pero) embraces the church, cheekily taking communion many times over in the hope it will move him closer to God and his mother.

It’s all fancy, juvenile stuff but given that Massimo was effectively working under false pretences that carried on through to his adult life, where his father still refused to tell the truth, taking this with him to the grave. The final act does reveal what actually happened (apparently under totally different circumstances in real life but the script change makes sense in this instance), and the closing scene is perhaps a definitive statement on why Italians revere the relationships with their mothers so greatly.

Dramatising personal real life stories is never easy and this is one instance where context proves an enemy, especially during the adult years. Massimo is a lot harder to read and the situations feel more contrived, most notably the inevitable romance with Elisa. Absolutely no reason is given why she should fall for Massimo nor is it ever explained why – yet it does proffer the surreal experience of hearing Surfin’ Bird played at an Italian party!

The cast can’t be faulted though, especially the young Massimos – Nicolò Cabras is given some absolutely mouthfuls of dialogue which he rattles off with flawless precision, whilst Dario Dal Pero is almost Damien-like in his devotion to finding his cause within the church. Valerio Mastandrea seems too a little distant from his junior incarnations and sucks the fun out of the film but handles his role well enough.

Admittedly, Bérénice Bejo’s presence is why I chose this film and as always, she is a joy to watch but she is on screen for less than 20 minutes despite second billing, which is misleading and disappointing. Barbara Ronchi is also used sparingly but her presence is a vital part of making the days of young Massimo so endearing and heart warming for the viewer.

Looking at Bellocchio’s near 60 year film career, it seems I have only seen one of his films, 2006’s The Wedding Director, which I wasn’t overly enamoured with. Luckily, Sweet Dreams is much better and superbly made, the scenes from the past tapping into the same nostalgic vein as Cinema Paradiso, full of wide-eyed curiosity and childlike buoyancy, in contrast to the dryly cynical and emotionally spartan 90’s segments.

It might have benefited from a tighter and maybe more linear script, just to give the later scenes more weight and time to develop, making better use of the near 130-minute run time. Otherwise, perfectly acceptable entertainment, all things considered.

4 thoughts on “Sweet Dreams (Fai bei sogni)

  1. Sounds like a film I’d hate to miss. I love Almodovar’s films both because of their foreignness and how women are beautifully portrayed. From your review, it sounds like Sweet Dreams covers them both so elegantly. I’m adding this one to my list.

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    1. Unfortunately, unlike Almodovar, the focus here is on the men while the woman only play fleeting roles, so you may be disappointed with this. The happier scenes with the mother and young Massimo are sweet though. 🙂

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