Facing the prospect of our parents’ death reveals complex and contradictory thoughts and feelings. We desperately want them to live longer, while perhaps an unconscious part of us wants them to go. We relive the deep emotional attachments of our relationship to them, and the conflicts. We suffer when we witness the suffering of the people who once took care of us. All of this and more than I can describe arises like a storm in our hearts. And yet at the same time, we still have to navigate the daily necessities of life such as going to work.
This practically universal experience provides the groundwork for a new film by Italian director Nanni Moretti called Mia Madre. We first see striking workers clashing with police. In the midst of the violence we hear, “Cut!” It’s a scene from a film, and the director, Margherita, played by Margherita Buy, is unhappy with the way things are going. As the story goes on, we learn just how stressful the job of a film director can be. Everyone seems to think they know how to do things better. Sometimes she has to yell just to be heard.
The stresses of her private life, as it turns out, are far more serious. Her mother Ada is in the hospital after having trouble breathing—first it is just a matter of some tests, everything will be fine, then she starts to get worse and everything is not fine although the doctors of course try to minimize this as well. She and her brother, played by the director Moretti himself, take turns watching over their mother. Ada is a former teacher and Latin scholar—here there is once again a hint of the importance of work in one’s life, but also the seeming contradiction of that in the light of mortality. Ada seems to be losing some of her mental acuity at this time. And as the situation deteriorates, Margherita’s daughter and ex-husband come for support.
All this time, of course, she’s also working. Her film stars an American actor named Barry Huggins, played by John Turturro. He is a gregarious but difficult person—his Italian is sketchy and he ends up having a lot of trouble remembering his lines, which drives the director and her crew crazy. But because he’s the big star from America, they have to put up with it. Turturro is remarkable in this part. We want to like this character, we’re disposed to taking that attitude, and Turturro, without overplaying his hand at all, undercuts our expectations.
Throughout his long career, Nanni Moretti has maintained an attitude of humility towards the characters and stories in his films. His quiet and generally undramatic style can lull the viewer into a kind of complacency, while explorations into life are going on under the surface, as it were.
Mia Madre is so true to the mundane experience, despite the seemingly extraordinary circumstances, that one feels gently upheld by the film rather than pushed around as we so often are. The issue of work, and what its relationship is to the rest of our lives, is so subtle here that it has to kind of seep in through the edges. Margherita Buy, beautiful with her weary, expressive eyes, lets her character’s shortcomings flare out in her behaviors while conveying how little aware of them she is herself. In the end, Mia Madre is about the heartbreaking reality of loss, and the humor and irony with which we try to heal it