“Mia Madre” by Nanni Moretti: An Essay (more than a review)
by Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly
“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 last line in a movie? So great it made you burst into tears? 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 references an earlier conversation in the film, as well as sums up the theme of the movie, and most importantly creates a definitive and meaningful end to the story (and endings are always difficult, even for the best filmmakers), in that way, this was an enormously powerful and stirring end – 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. Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not. It’s like writer/director Nanni Moretti (“The Son’s Room”) is tapping into an ancient source of pure emotion. And he does it so gracefully. The film is gently, deeply astute. The lyricism in the language adds to the effect; Italian is such an elegant language. It’s all part of this organic sensation that comes from the film – this gorgeous feeling that grows out of my stomach and blooms in my chest.
“Death is breathing life while life is killing her.”
In conversation after the screening, Moretti actually says that he wants the audience to feel that 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. I felt as if a great master, Michelangelo, was carefully cutting, chiseling into me, and so he – the sculptor, the director, the writer – is making us – the audience – into his magnificent carved creation. And in that way, Moretti is elevating us with his talent, his vision. He is making us sublime.
Except it really wasn’t “us.” It was just me alone and that movie. It was so intimate. I start off watching the movie from outside and thinking about it – thinking I will “review” it, and then I am in the movie. I am living it. It is living me. I am not audience observing a film; we are involved in each other in some palpable way. It’s almost physical – like I can literally feel it touching me. It brings me to life in an odd way; I can feel my heart inside my body.
Of course, the death of a parent is a universal experience, but this film manages to make it feel uniquely personal. I feel as if this director has been watching me in my life, with my family, and is now explaining myself to me. Although, I suspect it’s an explanation that will feel relevant or resonant to nearly every adult. Perhaps the film score helps me to feel so fully enthralled – a variety of music from Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass, Nino Rota, and Arvo Part.
Other critics may focus on the story that binds the film’s emotions together, but the movie is more about the emotions than the story. 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. However, I think that fact is more significant to the personal life of Moretti than to the body of this film; having an experience and elevating that experience to an art form are two very different things.
In this movie, the story functions to bring in the outside world and its pressing realities and complexities. The specifics of what job the central character has are mostly inconsequential. Although, it is worth noting that the character’s persistent and diligent return to the stress of her work environment, after each vigil beside her dying mother, shows that life goes on.
The story also serves by bringing smartly implemented humor. John Tuturro plays an American who is a hilariously bad actor in the film that our lead is trying to make. Tuturro’s approach is broad and exuberant, which is startling in this otherwise quiet movie, and ultimately Tuturro’s excited approach not only works but becomes essential to Moretti’s message. I am laughing, I am crying, I am laughing, I am crying… I am exalted.
Another 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, and finally the director herself admits that she doesn’t know what she means. But I see this as appropriately consistent with my unusual experience of the film; I am both standing outside it — watching, and in it — experiencing.
Fundamentally, this is a story about emotion. It’s an exploration of humanity. It is life and death – beautiful and heartbreaking, devastating and inspiring. It was excruciating to watch a scene where our lead character is stripped naked and exposed (metaphorically); she’s made vulnerable and cut to shreds – destroyed. Then, she goes 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 is talking, with his lovely Italian accent, and I hear… “love erupts in solitude.” I don’t even know what that means, but I totally feel it. I leave 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.