Mia Madre is a meta-tale of modern loss. A partly autobiographical depiction of director Nanni Moretti dealing with the loss of his mother during the production of his previous film, Habemus Papam, the film shows mortality at its most ordinary, with the deterioration and death of a parent shaking middle-aged children to their core.
Margherita (Margherita Buy) is an established director in the midst of making a decidedly un-Moretti film on social action in a factory. She is demanding, but is respected by her colleagues and the Italian media alike. Most evenings she and her brother Giovanni (Nanni Moretti himself) visit their mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), who is ailing in hospital and losing grip on both health and memory. While Giovanni serenely cares for her, in acceptance of the situation, Margherita thrashes against the inevitable. Buy convincingly shows her character struggling to stay focused on her work, with small ordinary moments invoking memories of her youth and her mother’s old age.
The film-in-a-film’s production faces a challenge with the arrival of Barry Huggins (John Turturro), an imposing, ecstatic, and distracted American actor. Turturro pitches Huggins brilliantly as obnoxious and endearing in equal measure, bringing much-needed comic relief. Margherita meanwhile is also juggling a break-up and the education of her teenage daughter. To top it all, a water leak in her apartment forces her to move to her mother’s home, heightening her anxieties.
For Margherita, everything seems to happen at once, and as an adult she is expected to take personal tragedy in her stride, along with all of life’s normal responsibilities. The absurdity of aging and death is also made plain. Ada, like Moretti’s mother, is a Latin scholar, and her intelligence is quietly rendered irrelevant as she loses her mind. Lazzarini weaves seamlessly between the character’s confusion and moments of refined clarity. The intrusive medical interventions of the hospital question whether we overvalue extending the duration of a lifetime, over its quality.
The film also gains in strength from having a refreshingly strong-minded woman as its lead. Margherita is unafraid to speak her mind and unflinchingly commands a male-dominated set – and Buy combines well this professional imperiousness with the vulnerability of her character’s personal life. Her motherhood does not rule her identity and she casts off romantic relationships while accepting the painful feedback emerging from them. Moretti skilfully handles the technical challenge of shooting a set within a set – and the set piece scenes charting the progression of the shoot – involving moving cars, and large casts of extras – are perfectly executed. Director of Photography Arnaldo Catinari uses muted colours throughout, reflecting the main character’s shaken mood.
However, at times, Mia Madre seems scattered. It attempts to cover a lot of ground – loss, parenthood, failing romances, and the demands of professional life. It would have been more satisfying to see Moretti dig deeper with these themes, most of which he only touches upon. The pace also lags at times, with several scenes coming across as repetitive. There one too many moments in the hospital with Ada seeming confused, or on Margherita’s set showing Barry struggling to deliver his part. Despite this, Mia Madre is a moving self-portrait, supported by strong performances from Buy, Turturro and Moretti.
Mia Madre is released in UK cinemas on September 25th.