There aren’t many filmmakers working today who could have one of their characters propose the toast “Here’s to the director” and it come off as anything other than an ejaculation of ego – let alone if they themselves just happen to be the actor playing that character.
In fact, to misquote ‘Highlander’, there may only be one… no, Seth MacFarlane, you can sit down; look instead to Italian actor-auteur Nanni Moretti.
That Moretti incites such generosity is attributable to the deep humanism expressed through his movies (well, at least those movies best-known outside his homeland). His characters may tend to be middle rather than working class, but the care and affection this author-god offers them as they navigate the narrative oceans of his creation evoke the spirit of the greatest Italian actor-director of them all, the legendary Vittorio De Sica.
The perception of Moretti as one of life’s good guys is reinforced by his outspoken criticism of that perennial pantomime villain Silvio Berlusconi (ostensible subject of his 2006 movie ‘The Caiman’). Indeed, such is the director’s interest in politics that during the 2013 general election he gave public backing to the centre-left Partito Democratico, now led by Matteo Renzi who at 40 is the youngest Prime Minister in the history of the Italian Republic.
Given that interest, the expectation was surely that Moretti’s first feature since 2011’s ‘We Have a Pope’ would offer some form of comment on Italy’s post-crash travails, taking in austerity, the technocracy and everything in between.
And indeed ‘Mia Madre’ does nod to those economic woes: most obviously via its film-within-a-film, an industrial relations drama being worked on by successful director Margherita (Margherita Buy); most affectingly in a scene where her brother, Giovanni (Moretti), resigns his job and is told he is consigning himself to the scrapheap.
But like Moretti’s 2001 Palme d’Or-winner ‘The Son’s Room’, the narrative of ‘Mia Madre’ is more concerned with family intimacies than it is social commentary. The subject at its core is cycles of life, not economic boom and bust.
Margherita is a woman who straddles two worlds. Professionally, she is assured and sensitive, as evinced by an early scene where she scolds a camera op for honing in too enthusiastically on the truncheon blows during a clash between actors playing police and strikers.
The flipside is her personal existence where she struggles to connect – both with her teenage daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini), and most pressingly with her increasingly ill mother, Ada (Guilia Lazzarini). Another early moment illustrates this remoteness: as Margherita awkwardly converses with Ada, the woman at the next hospital bed tenderly applies cream to her relative’s hands, radiating the sensitivity so lacking in Margherita.
Levity to lighten the crisis, at least temporarily, arrives in the form of American star Barry Huggins (John Turturro), who has been enlisted to play the factory boss in Margherita’s movie. Offering perhaps a little too neat a contrast with his oft-icily controlled director, Huggins is a maverick, a loose cannon, living on not always reliable instinct as he bandies about his tall tales of being pursued by Kubrick.
But if the comedy he provides sometimes topples over into that canyon of broadness seemingly still so beloved of European cinema-goers, Huggins is also played with charm by Turturro, an expert in essaying such eccentrics. And it’s warming too to see Barton Fink cameoing in a film not solely built from the dubious foundations provided by hyperkinetic robo-colossi and Megan Fox’s fetishised backside.
As a director, Moretti’s mise-en-scène might be less obviously arresting than those of Paolo Sorrentino and Matteo Garrone, his fellow leading lights of modern Italian movie-making. But his films consistently search for emotional truths through the lives of their characters, and ‘Mia Madre’ is no exception.
And in a cinematic epoch ruled by prequels, reboots and rip-offs, most of ‘em thicker than a whale omelette, that’s gotta be something worth raising a glass to, right?
Mia Madre is released in the UK on 25 September