“Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not.”
When was the last time you heard a great closing line in a movie? Endings are always difficult, even for the best filmmakers, but when that final moment manages to take your breath away, it is a special kind of bliss. The final line in Nanni Moretti‘s Mia Madre is not a brilliant sentence in itself. Then again, is “rosebud” profound in itself? But in context – the way it calls back to an earlier conversation in the film, sums up the theme of the movie, and also creates a definitive and significant end to the story, in that way, this line was magnificent. It was profound. It was probably the best final line to a movie that anyone heard at the 53rd New York Film Festival. And it literally made me cry out loud.
Basically, this is a story about a woman whose mother is dying. But don’t imagine grim or depressing. In fact, this film is nothing if not charming. Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not. It feels like writer/director Nanni Moretti (“The Son’s Room”) is tapping into an ancient source of emotion — pure and essential and untainted by sentimentality. And he handles the film’s emotional flow like the precious and potent elixir it is, dispensing it gently and intently.
Moretti moves gracefully, mingling pain with mirth. The film is nimble and deeply astute. It is not as much smart or telling as it is wise and stirring. The lyricism in the language adds to the effect; Italian is linguistic music. Plus, the film score mixes Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, and Nino Rota. It’s all part of an organic sensation that lives in this film – a gorgeous feeling that planted itself in me and during the course of the movie seemed to grow up from my gut and bloom in my chest.
In conversation after the screening, Moretti actually said that he wants the audience “to feel the movie is digging inside of them.” That’s exactly what I felt. Or, I felt the movie carving into me. As I watched, I felt like I was being sculpted. It was as if a great master was carefully cutting, chiseling into me, and thus he – the sculptor, director, writer – is making us, the audience, into his beautiful carved creation. And in that way, Moretti is elevating us with his talent, his vision. He is making us sublime.
I know I am not telling much about the narrative tale. Other critics will surely focus on the events and activities in the film. Although I assert that the flesh of the film is its emotions, and the story is like a tendon, binding the muscle to the bone.
But here is the central scenario: the lead character (played with glorious subtlety by Margherita Buy) is an Italian filmmaker who is shooting a movie while her mother is dying in a hospital. Actually, this is a semi-autobiographical film in that Mortetti had his mother die while he was shooting a previous film. Again, I expect other critics will make much of that parallel. However, I think that is more significant to the personal life of Moretti than to the body of this film. I believe it is more relevant to explore the content of the film than to rummage around in Moretti’s life, trying to guess what inspired him. Clearly this mature film is the culmination of a rich life; it presents a seasoned perspective and is influenced by much more than any one event.
Having an experience and elevating that experience to an art form are two very different things. Many filmmakers have had a parent die. Transforming that loss into something as vital and gripping as this film… that ability comes from a deeply rooted life, a unique mind, a special soul. I say this film is not about Moretti’s mother. It is about Moretti’s vision of humanity.
“Death is breathing life while life is killing her.”
In this movie, the action functions unlike a typical tale; it is more a mechanism to bring the outside world into a small hospital room where the true story unfolds — to bring life’s pressing realities and complexities to bear on the characters as they wait for death. The specifics of what job Margherita has is mostly inconsequential. Although, what is important is watching her persistent and diligent return to the stress of her work environment after each vigil beside her dying mother.
The film seems to question if those immediate troubles-on-the-job are trivial in comparison to the life-and-death world inside that hospital room. Or do they actually matter more? Margherita’s attention can make a tangible difference in the future of her career and those of others who work with her, but her presence with her mother will change nothing; that outcome is predetermined. Either way, Moretti illustrates how life’s busyness and necessities go on no matter what profundities mortality reveals in its private moments.
The action also serves to insert humor into what might be a bleak scenario in lesser hands. In addition to his finesse with the emotional heaviness itself, Moretti provides balance with healthy doses of laughter. John Turturro plays an American who is a hilariously bad actor in the Italian film that Margherita is trying to make. Turturro’s approach is broad and exuberant, which is startling in this otherwise quiet movie. At first it seems abrasively out of place. But ultimately Turturro’s excited persona becomes a key part of Moretti’s message: I am laughing, I am crying, I am laughing, I am crying… I am exalted.
A rather wry running joke in the film is when our protagonist director repeatedly tells her actors to “be the character you are playing at the same time as you stand outside the character.” No one understands this instruction; they ponder, try, don’t get it. Finally, late in the movie, the director herself admits that she doesn’t know what she means by that command — that desire for something more than regular acting. But I know what she means, having seen Moretti’s film.
Mia Madre is a palpably intimate movie. It made me feel one with it — as if I was living it or it was living me, at the same time as I was observing the film from the outside and trying to “review” it. It was a strange experience as a critic, but Moretti’s paradoxical life vision plays out in the way the film expresses itself and in how it engages its audience. The death of a parent is a universal experience for all adults, but this film manages to make it feel singular — uniquely personal. In your next breath, however, you are contemplating the larger nature of existence. It’s quite a directorial feat.
Fundamentally, this is a story about life and death – beautiful and heartbreaking, devastating and inspiring. It was excruciating to watch a scene where Margherita has a violent argument and is emotionally stripped naked and exposed; she’s made vulnerable and cut to shreds – destroyed. Then, she goes back into that hospital room and sits silently beside her dying mother, and that gives her new life. It revives her. It saves her. Death is breathing life while life is killing her.
In the press conference, Moretti was talking, with his lovely Italian accent, and I heard… “love erupts in solitude.” I don’t even know what that means, but I totally felt it. I left the theater feeling newly alive.
Update: After playing at the 53rd New York International Film Festival, this movie played at the Chicago International Film Festival, and then virtually disappeared from the U.S. But look for it to return in March 2016, at your local art / indie /foreign-film theater. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or prize at Cannes Film Festival and won Best Non-U.S. Release at the Online Film Critics Society Awards.
Mia Madre is now available for streaming from Amazon Prime, iTunes, and elsewhere.