Saturday 26 September 2015

Good grief: "Mia Madre"

Nanni Moretti's new film Mia Madre opens with a philosophy and ethics debate on the location of an impassioned political drama. The drama's director, Margherita (Margherita Buy), argues that it's important to her to show a scene of strikebreaking in a composed longshot, so that the viewer can take in the action at his or her leisure; one of her cameramen, on the other hand, is insistent that his decision to punch up the action by zooming in on the batons pummelling the striking factory workers is a valid one. Both opinions will be trumped, later that same night, by Margherita's ailing mother (Giulia Lazzarini), who from her hospital bed wonders why anybody in this day and age would bother to shoot another dreary movie about an industrial dispute, from any angle. The debate feels like an extension of that Moretti's inspiration Woody Allen was still prepared to enter into around the time of 2004's Melinda and Melinda - one that ponders the chewy notion of whether our entertainments have any particular duty to be funny or sad, or whether they can, like life, be a little of both.

This interplay between the light and dark of this world continues into the main body of Mia Madre, which turns out to be something like Day for Night on the set of Tout va Bien: a movie about moviemaking and moviemakers, yes, but also an energising stroll along that fine line that separates art from life. By day, Margherita calls the shots on her opus, striving to cope with the increasing derangement of her overbearing American guest star Barry Huggins (John Turturro); by night, she returns to mama's bedside, where her lack of practicality is shown up by the presence of "good brother" Giovanni (Moretti himself). In between, however, there are a number of unsettling slippages - dreamlike scenes, the meanderings of an unsettled mind - in which Margherita imagines seeing, say, everyone she knows in a cinema queue that snakes around several blocks in a way cinema queues rarely do. What's most disconcerting about these interjections is their lack of consistency. One scene that initially feels like a dream - Margherita getting out of bed to find her feet wet, her apartment flooded - may very well be a reality, albeit one that comes in uncannily close to a dream in Michael Haneke's Amour, that sacred-solemn touchstone on the imminence of death.

As his international touchstone Dear Diary flagged, Moretti is one of the few filmmakers at large in world cinema to have had hands-on experience of running and programming an actual cinema, which is to say he's a director who knows better than most what does and doesn't play with an audience. There are stretches in Mia Madre where you strongly feel Moretti processing the experiences he's been through (he lost his mother while filming 2011's We Have a Pope) alongside the movies he's had on his mind in recent years; his film is a mix of the first and second hand, the intimate and the universal. Where it succeeds is that this filmmaker gets his characters out of the stifling observation chamber - and, beyond that, the sepulchral High Culture universe - in which Haneke so firmly locked his: he gives them context, takes them out onto the shop floor. Moretti's characters aren't tragic figures or test subjects, martyrs to be preserved in arthouse aspic; they're first and foremost flesh-and-blood creations having to negotiate the myriad day-to-day challenges of life.

Buy - an actress still better known in her homeland than she is internationally - becomes the film's figurehead, its bedrock: her Margherita is a consummate pro who finds herself having to defer to a higher and more arbitrary form of direction than she's used to giving on set. Yet for the film's thesis to come to life as it does, it needs Turturro to be right there alongside her: though the actor pushes the blustering ham to an extreme, he pulls the film into a new and livelier shape whenever Moretti threatens to get lost in his (or his heroine's) thoughts. (An extra resonance: as Margherita loses a mother, she gains an unruly child.) As with so many other films in the Moretti filmography, it's not a showy work, offering nothing likely to upset the applecart or frighten the horses - just a quiet, engaged accumulation of truthful interactions. Yet at a time when Allen, for one, looks to have given into morose compulsion, set firm in his ways, Mia Madre provides the not inconsiderable consolation (and pleasure) of seeing his assumed inheritor still very much striving to calibrate his cinema, keep all of life's elements in play, and - best of all - involve us, deeply, in the process.

Mia Madre is now playing in selected cinemas.

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