Nanni Moretti’s storied career in film has perhaps, at long last reached its pinnacle with his latest, Mia Madre, an often emotional glimpse into the surreal alternate realities of both filmmaking and losing a loved one. Centered around a strait-laced, tight-fisted female auteur named Margherita (Margherita Buy), Moretti’s deft presentation of a life surrendered to art at the price of, often times, family opens on the type of scene we’re intended to see as “epic,” with a number of protesting workers storming the factory to rebel against new ownership and, with it, inevitable layoffs.
As the workers storm the gates, Margherita yells “Stop!” (the Italian version of “Cut!”) and proceeds to criticize the second cameraman for making the shot too tight. Her meticulousness and respected authority is, thus, made clear from the outset. Soon after, she goes to the hospital, where she has been visiting her ailing mother, who, at this point, Margherita still assumes will get better.
Ultimately, however, her brother, Giovanni (played by Moretti himself), must inform Margherita that Ada’s health is deteriorating, not improving. Moretti, who based the matriarch in the film, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), on his own mother, renders the subject of death and losing a parent with the utmost of care, blending unearthly elements of Margherita’s memory with the pressures she feels working on Noi Siamo Qui. For a career as long and legendary as hers, it’s clear that Margherita has existed too easily in the blurred line between make believe and reality as a result of spending most of her time on sets. It is because of this that it’s initially difficult to discern whether the flashback of her confiscating Ada’s license by ripping it into pieces and then crashing the car in front of her to prove a point is real or not. But oh, it is, and one of the most extreme examples of Margherita’s directorial nature.
Other scenes from Mia Madre are more clear-cut in their predilection toward fantasy, as when Margherita awakens in the night to find herself wading through a river of water that has made its way through her apartment from the bathroom. She futilely tries to solve the problem by putting down a number of newspapers to absorb the water, but, obviously, to no avail. The inane exertion on her part to prevent the damage of the flood is an overt metaphor for what’s really plaguing her: the inability to save her mother from her imminent demise.
Margherita’s difficulty in getting to the stage of acceptance is marked by reveries that could just as easily be real memories, as is the case when she walks past a line outside a movie theater showing Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. At first seeming like a typical night, Margherita encounters Ada, still in the hospital at this point, and her past self, giving the same speech to an ex-boyfriend that she just gave to her current one, Vittorio (Enrico Ianniello), about how he needs to have a little “dignity” when it comes to not begging her to stay together. One gets the sense that this is the point in Margherita’s life when she truly decided that she would devote herself to film, not falsely romantic notions like love.
In point of fact, the practicality that imbues all facets of Margherita’s directorial style bleeds into what little personal life she allows herself. Even when she enters states of subconsciousness, it’s always restrained by some subtle tie to reality. Moretti’s skill in combining the hypnagogic with the real is like one glorious homage to the unlikely but inextricably linked Waking Life and The Seventh Seal. In the former’s case, the audience’s consistent need to question whether or not Margherita is still in her dream or dreamlike state makes Richard Linklater’s 2001 film an easy parallel. Where Ingmar Bergman’s classic is concerned, Mia Madre’s dealings with the subject of death–specifically one’s reluctance toward and denial of acceptance–pervades every character.
For comic relief, however, there is John Turturro. In the role of an Italian American actor named Barry Huggins (though you wouldn’t detect any Italian in him with a last name like that), a man with a grand personality that eventually causes him to explode on the set, Turturro is given plenty of leeway to showcase his often underrated chops. At first pandering as much as someone like him can to Margherita, he finally snaps during a scene shot in the workers’ lunchroom, screaming, “I wanna go back to reality!,” a reference to his perpetual state of pretending to be someone else for a living. And it’s this line that sums up the crux of Mia Madre, which is that where art and life are concerned, it often becomes impossible to distinguish between the two when you’ve thrown yourself whole-heartedly into the art side for so long.