Italian Mia Madre, US Sea of Trees screened on 68th Cannes Film Festival

17 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Cannes 2015: Nanni MorettiItalian director Nanni Moretti said that he never considered casting himself in the central role of a film director in his semi-autobiographical new film, My Mother, which screens on Saturday at the Cannes film festival.Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre is warm, witty and seductive: his best film since The Son’s Room, returning him to the themes of cinema, life, family ties and family guilt, though given here a gentler and more lenient view.

The Festival de Cannes competition presented two beautiful, moving films: Mia Madre (My Mother) by Nanni Moretti and Gus Van Sant’s drama The Sea of Trees.Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti most recently skewered religion with “We Have a Pope,” but for his latest feature “Mia Madre” he returns to the arena of family drama for the first time since “The Son’s Room.” That movie dealt with a couple mourning the death of their son; this time, Moretti confronts the loss of one’s mother. Primed for a miserable realist drama about a woman watching her elderly mother’s slow decline from pneumonia, My Mother frequently surprises the viewer with its perceptive prodding of the relationship between a determined female director and her annoying lead actor, played with relish by John Turturro. Overcome by grief and lack of preparation when faced with her mother’s deadly state, Margherita slowly descends into a spiral of insecurity and emotional turmoil both on and off set. Film director Margherita (Margherita Buy) is struggling with the endless stresses of making a movie, while also coping with the added heartache of looking after her dying mother.

But it’s true there’s a lot of me in Margherita, while [her brother] Giovanni is the person I would like to be (and the person Margherita would like to be too).” My Mother follows Margherita as her film shoot becomes beset by personal troubles, notably the worsening condition of her ailing mother, a former classical scholar. A director is midway through shooting a high-minded, if slightly schematic social-realist strike movie with the stirring and solidarity-minded title of Noi Siamo Qui (We Are Here); about factory workers staging a sit-in, protesting against the new owner’s planned layoffs.

She seems less and less convinced by the course her own film has taken, doubting every movement on set, every word from her assistant, and ultimately trusting no one — not even herself. On set and in the real world Margherita’s life is unravelling: she’s broken up with her boyfriend, has an adolescent daughter to look after and is struggling to reconcile with the fact that her mother doesn’t have long to live. The film she is directing is about a factory full of workers being threatened by impending layoffs and her lead actor from America is causing her extra concern by fluffing his lines and acting erratically on set. Moretti’s own family background appears to hew closely to Margherita’s: his mother Agata, a much-respected Latin teacher who appeared in Moretti’s autobiographical 1998 feature Aprile, died in 2010; while his brother Franco is a celebrated literature professor.

Her brother Giovanni (Moretti himself) is there to help, having quit his job to make their mother’s stay in hospital as comfortable as possible, but Margherita’s attentions are elsewhere – on her movie. Her personal life is a bit of a mess, with a relationship recently ended and a daughter off skiing with the girl’s father, Marguerite’s ex-husband. But she must manage this situation with a growing crisis: her elderly mother Ada (Guilia Lazzarini) is in hospital, and Margherita is in denial about the increasingly grave situation.

Even seriously ill, as Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) is lying in the hospital for a pneumonia with complications, and the shade of death is lingering in the room. The shoot is complicated by the arrival of loud mouth American actor Barry Huggins (a brilliant John Turturro), whose loose grasp of Italian and larger than life presence cause huge problems. Confronted with the demands of working on the set, and the crushing inevitability of her mother’s illness, Margherita’s mind is torn between two places at once, leading her to re-evaluate her relationships. The strike-style “morale” banners that some patients’ relatives hang up outside the hospital remind Margherita subliminally of the placards in her movie, and she is plagued with cinematically vivid bad dreams about her personal history, from one of which she awakens to a domestic situation in her flat which she (and we, the audience) at first think must be a bad dream as well. To show the tensions underlying the film, Moretti’s storytelling alternates the episodes of Margherita’s complicated filming with flashbacks, dreams, and slices of everyday lives.

Before he shows up in the film, sleeping in an airport chair and waiting for Marguerite to pick him up, My Mother seems like it might be a little too melancholy to truly engage. So she has to go to live in her mother’s apartment, where she grew up, and the memories bring her close to a kind of hidden or unacknowledged breakdown. While taking care of her mother, Margherita has to manage her film with Barry (John Turturro), an American actor a bit megalomaniac, subject to early Alzheimer’s, and to assume her doubts about her art and her private anxieties: she just left her companion and her daughter Julia (Beatrice Mancini) is a teenage girl with desires for freedom. It’s a tender account of long, drawn out loss, Buy brilliantly portraying a woman keeping her grief and guilt largely internalised but plain to see behind her weary, devastated eyes.

I thought it would be interesting to give these characteristics to a woman rather than a man – they are very different to the caring qualities that are given to most women characters. Brilliantly, Moretti allows the audience to assume that Margherita’s mother is a little placid old mamma, and it is her children Margherita and Giovanni who are the first-generation prosperous intellectuals. The scenes of shooting are worth their weight in gold with John Turturro, playing a Barry in decline, who forgets his lines but is always good at jokes. Perpetually switching from English to Italian, and from serious moments to hilarious outbursts, Turturro’s character brings welcome levity to the otherwise morose proceedings.

Whether regaling Margherita with stories of the time he worked with Kubrick, convincing his director to direct him in a gangster film he has mapped out in his impulsive imagination, or having a tantrum on set over his itchy moustache, Huggins is like a Tasmanian Devil whipping through the movie. But then Moretti challenges this assumption by having Ada remark that here in hospital, “the older you are, the dumber they think you are, when actually it’s the opposite: you know more”. We waver from laughter to the tragic during the poignant story with dignity about the end of a mother, who besides being a teacher for her students, was also a teacher of life.

For Barry, a night out with the producer and Margherita becomes the occasion to flaunt his stereotypical love for the Italian capital and the ghosts of cinema roaming its streets. Saying he had first met Moretti at Cannes several years previously, Turturro professed himself delighted to be involved. “I don’t do job just by the part, it’s who you are going to work with. The last scene sums up a mother’s life who shows optimism against all odds: when Margherita asks her what she is thinking, she responds: “About tomorrow”… Alongside the suffering mother, Margherita Buy’s central character is moving, played with finesse and expressive facial expressions showing the little girl who still lives in her, desperate to be unable to stop the course of death – all what she has learned in life is useless. Margherita’s emotional faculties keep on wavering above the abyss of pain as nightmares, more or less pleasant memories and hallucinations are incoherently woven into the narrative.

At times it feels like Moretti has made a cut and shut movie, welding together two completely different films, but somehow it works – the filmmaker effortlessly shifting the pace and tone of the tale in the blink of an eye. Barry is charming, effusive, childishly excited about being in Rome: keeping his indulgent hosts up late talking and drinking, boring them all with his reminscences of working with Kubrick, whose demands led him to miss the birth of his son. Constantly cutting back and forth between the hospital where Margherita and her brother look after their mother, and the set where Margherita seems to be letting her control over the production slip, it is easy to grasp the strain she feels. In the quest for the cinematic Grail, it is not Arthur and the Brocéliande forest, but Arthur and the magic of the Aokigahara forest that Gus Van Sant, Palme d’Or winner in 2003 for Elephant, is staging.

Moretti couldn’t make it clearer that Margherita’s inability to make sense of her mother’s imminent death reflects greater insecurities pertaining to other aspects of her life. We wouldn’t be surprised if Margherita’s baffling advice that she wants to see “the actor stood beside the character” is a line Moretti has used himself once or twice. There is a hilarious sequence in which Barry has to drive a car in one scene: should the car be mounted on a truck, or should Barry actually try to drive a car, with lights and camera dangerously mounted on the windshield so that he is actually in danger of crashing? At one point during a press conference on set Margherita responds to a question about her film’s social conscience by saying audiences “ask us for films that aren’t just entertainment.” It’s a request that Moretti has directly addressed with My Mother – a film that entertains, and much more besides. Shot simply but elegantly, it doesn’t quite have the impact of Moretti’s best work (it’s too gentle for that to be the case) and the occasional flashbacks/dream sequences feel largely unnecessary or just downright confusing, but Moretti has returned to Cannes with his finest film in years.

That may in fact be the case, as a former lover pedantically tells her, but the script fails to render all of the above in any meaningful or convincing way. Moretti makes little attempt to be flashy in his direction but the slightly jumbled chronology and occasionally attention-grabbing images aid the story’s momentum. For a slow moving story about the gradual decline of an elderly lady, the pace rarely drags, largely due to its perfectly judged moments of comedy featuring Turturro on irresistible form.

Arthur goes to help him out and, leaving aside his decision to die, will help him to survive throughout a journey into the depths of the forest where they get lost and brave the elements and nature’s harshness. Margherita’s relationship with her daughter is the weakest of the subplots, adding very little to the overall drama but when the characters are this believably drawn, it’s understandable why it wasn’t excised. Takami, Arthur’s companion in misfortune, is a Japanese employee put on the shelf, hence his desire of “no more living.” Throughout their wandering, flashbacks revive the painly love affair between Arthur and Joan (Naomi Watts). Margherita’s failure to elaborate on her grief is mirrored in Moretti’s failure to construct a coherent film where the spectator can find a way into its meaning, rather than being caught in a confused web of suggestions, half-baked ideas and circular exposition.

It’s just a shame there wasn’t room for a little more Barry Huggins as the scenes that take place on Margherita’s film set really take My Mother up a notch. Gradually, the two men confide in each other and Arthur let his grief speak, eventually forgetting his desire to die, while Takami tries to make him accept that the forest is home of Tamashi – spirits in purgatory – the laments of which one can hear sometimes.

That said, Giulia Lazzarini does a fantastic job as the mother slowly finding her brain functions decreasing and the film’s final scenes pack an emotional punch. And where a soul has found the way to heaven, an orchid grows… It’s this flower – Joan’s favorite – that Arthur finds when he comes back to save his companion that he left to get help.

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