By the Palme d’Or winning and reassuringly (if somewhat irritatingly) left-wing Italian director Nanni Moretti, Mia Madre is set in present-day Rome.
The story centres on the struggles of Margherita, a middle-aged filmmaker who is trying to juggle her work and an increasingly difficult family life.
Torn between the demands of a difficult Hollywood actor (a wonderful John Turturro almost steals the film in this role), her teenage daughter and her ailing mother’s slow but inevitable decline, Margherita finds it hard to keep all the balls in the air.
Like the profession of director itself, she tries her hardest to stay in control until the final call. But sometimes, the cracks show and at other times, she’s a woman on the verge of a very public breakdown.
Working on a social-realist film about a factory strike, entitled Noi Siamo Qui (We Are Here), Margherita spends many of the shoots biting her lip as American has-been actor Barry Huggins. Turturro is an utter delight to watch as the factory owner, as he fluffs his lines, flounces pompously off set and huffs with everyone who’ll listen to him.
Though Barry speaks some Italian, the gaps in his knowledge allow for some hilarious scenes in which he lets off steam in English about the director’s vague advice, while she bemoans the Yank’s total ineptitude to the crew in super-speed Italian – neither side quite catching the meaning of the other.
To complicate matters, Margherita has also split up with her boyfriend, an actor on the film – she is divorced from the father of her daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini). At one point he confesses they aren’t working because she’s cold and thinks only of herself.
But the heart of Mia Madre is much darker than this and its heartbreaking theme, the loss of a parent, is universal. Just what do you do when your mother – the person who brought you into the world, your anchor, is about to leave you forever?
Margherita’s brother Giovanni, played sensitively by Moretti, who always stars in his own films, has taken time off work to look after their mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini),a retired classics teacher who has been hospitalised.
As time goes on, a guilt-racked Margherita realises both her film and her personal life are coming apart at the seams, and a scene on a park bench outside the hospital where Ada is being treated brings a real lump to the throat.
“That doctor was very confused, wasn’t she? She had so many ideas. But I think she was saying there’s definitely room for improvement”, says Margherita, hopefully.
“Margherita, that’s enough. Our mother is dying”, replies Giovanni. “She is dying. And I don’t know what to do anymore.”
The one major success story in Italy in recent years (and yes, it was a big success story!) was Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. Italian cinema continues to be dominated by daft slapdash comedies, normally starring national darling Carol Verdone.
So it’s refreshing to see something like this, which brings Italian film back to its most powerful, humane, tragicomic roots in true Nanni Moretti style. And the performance of its protagonist, played by Susan Sarandon lookalike Margherita Buy, is sufficiently delicate to sustain it all.