A movie shoot is in crisis. The star is difficult. The director is distracted: by family responsibilities, an old lover, and whether this movie – really, a whole life’s work – even matters. In the middle of a press conference, hounded by journalists, the director whispers a plea, or a prayer: “Mama, help me.”
Nope, it’s not 1963 again. But Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre does have the same bones, if a different skin, as countryman Federico Fellini’s 8½, still the point of comparison (and Mount Olympus) for movies about moviemaking. Here, the chaos and pageantry of Fellini is shaved down to spareness, Guido is a girl, and it’s not really about moviemaking, but the terrible and protracted diminishment of an aging parent.
Mia Madre’s Margherita (Buy) makes socially responsible films; her latest is about factory workers on strike. She has little patience for her lead, a mercurial American actor named Barry (Turturro), forever flubbing his Italian-language lines, and the unruly production is getting away from her. In an exquisite brief by Moretti, he tracks Margherita pacing a location, and the six crew members trailing her, worker ants trying to anticipate their queen’s needs. But they can’t fix the biggest thing bothering Margherita, which is that her mother (Lazzarini), a former Latin professor, is winding down.
Drawing inspiration from the death of his own mother, Moretti (Caro Diaro, The Son’s Room) and his co-authors relay the bedside stress and sadness of attending a loved one at her end of life. (As with 8½, stress is manifest in a suppleness that shifts between real life, dream life, and memory.) Mia Madre is effective in dramatizing the familiar paces adult children go through tending to their parents: the hospital indignities, confused consults with doctors, and helplessness at encroaching dementia. “Effective” can be interesting and worthy. It’s also the kind of word you’d use to describe a prescription drug. For truly affecting, there is Margherita’s teen daughter, Livia (Mancini). I don’t know if Moretti cares about catharsis, but Livia’s silent sob broke me, in the best way.
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