Mark Reviews Movies

Mia Madre


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Nanni Moretti

Cast: Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Giulia Lazzarini, Nanni Moretti, Beatrice Mancini, Stefano Abbati, Enrico Ianniello

MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 8/26/16 (limited); 9/2/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 1, 2016

In theory, the director on a movie shoot is in control of everything—or at least as in control as anyone can be in a situation. That must have an appeal to some people, whether they're aware of it or not. Those are two, most significant components of the main character of Mia Madre­: the need to control and a lack of awareness about herself, as well as other people.

She is a movie director, and her new project involves a workers revolt against the new ownership of a factory. The movie within this one doesn't matter, except as a way to emphasize the filmmaker's sense of self-importance. If the movie itself is "important," then surely the person behind it must be, as well. At one point, we hear the inner monologue of the director, named Margherita (Margherita Buy), during a press conference that may or may not be a dream. Reporters are asking questions about why she tackles such socially relevant subjects, even while her colleagues are moving on to more intimate and personal movies, and what her opinion on real-world labor concerns are.

In her mind, Margherita wishes people would stop asking these questions. She really doesn't know what to say, let alone what she thinks.

On the surface, the character seems ripe for a satirical touch. She's an artist who creates art of transparent significance either as a cover for her lack of understanding of social issues or because it's simply the thing an artist such as the one she wants to be does. She expects perfection from her crew, even though she doesn't communicate what she wants until after they have done their work. Sometimes she isn't even sure what she wants.

Most notably, though, Margherita exhibits complete control over her life, and it's a mess. She doesn't understand why, either.

Co-writer/director Nanni Moretti easily could make Margherita the target of scorn or ridicule, but as one might expect, the filmmaker instead approaches his fictional colleague with an abundance of sympathy and a bit of pity. The scenes of the movie-within-the movie's production are played with a humorous touch for the most part, although, even then, the reality of Margherita's life eventually breaks through the protective bubble of her creative process. She begins the film with little other than work on her mind, and she ends it with her work as the furthest thing from her thoughts.

The process of getting to that point involves a troubled shoot, a failed romantic relationship, a temperamental and egotistical American actor, and, as the title suggests, the persistently worsening condition of her mother. Nothing is going right on the shoot. Her lead actor is nowhere to be found, and his double looks nothing like him. When Barry Huggins (John Turturro) does arrive in Italy, she has to go to the airport to bring him to his hotel. He returns the favor by suggesting she spend the night with him.

In her personal life, Margherita breaks up with her boyfriend (Enrico Ianniello), who's also an actor in the movie. He tells her that she always expects the worse from people and any given situation, but she doesn't listen. She's divorced, and her daughter Livia (Beatrice Mancini) is away with Margherita's ex-husband. Meanwhile, her mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) is in the hospital after a bad case of pneumonia. She's too distracted by work to comprehend why her brother Giovanni (Moretti), who's on a leave of absence from his job to care for his mother, is talking in ways that suggest finality instead of recovery.

The screenplay by Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, and Valia Santella freely moves between reality, dreams, and memories. The production remains a consistent problem, as Barry struggles to remember his lines and turns into a boasting bore when he has had too much to drink (He brags about being fired by Stanley Kubrick, because it means that he worked with the director).

No one seems able to take her direction, although she does offer such indecipherable advice as being both the character and the actor to her performers (The tip is met, appropriately, with blank stares). A single shot that consists of only a few lines becomes a repeating nightmare because it takes place in a car. Barry doesn't look convincing when the vehicle is being towed, and he can't see where he's going with cameras on the hood. To his credit, Barry knows the right way to respond the first time Margherita finds her personal troubles interrupting her professional life.

The film juxtaposes her dominant but ineffectual presence on set with her helpless and distant presence within her own life. The dreams and memories that she experiences arrive on a whim, and they help to flesh out the things about Margherita that she isn't willing to admit to anyone else. She recalls a time that she tore up Ada's driver's license and proceeded to drive her mother's car into a wall to stop her from driving, and she later dreams that her mother has died, only to wake up in the hospital room with her. In a particularly affecting scene, Margherita tries to play the role of director to her mother, ordering her to walk to the bathroom on her own before breaking down when she realizes Ada cannot even take a few steps to the wheelchair.

To one degree or another, all of these scenes are of a piece with the film's picture of Margherita. That picture is one of her struggle to control everything about her life. It's not a flattering portrait, and Mia Madre remains honest about the consequences.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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