La grande dolcezza: Cannes falls for Italian tales of love and loss
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The Cannes Film Festival pursues its Italian love affair with Nanni Moretti’s “My Mother”, a delicate meditation on inadequacy and bereavement that blends in tragedy and exquisite comedy.
Not since the days of Ettore Scola and the Taviani brothers had Cannes felt this Italian. The Boot has produced three directors vying for the Palme d’Or this year, more than any country barring the host nation. In the long lines for press screenings the chatter of Italian critics is omnipresent. According to our red carpet photographer, Italians also dominate the frenzied photo sessions, cajoling the stars with feverish gestures and shouts of “Girati ! Girati !” (Turn around!) and “Guardami !” (Look at me!).
With its intoxicating blend of sun, sea, garish clothing, and vulgar lounge bars playing horrific techno music, Cannes would make a perfect set for a trashy scene in a Paolo Sorrentino movie. “Youth”, Sorrentino’s latest competition entry and his first in English, will be screened later on in the festival. Also in English, Matteo Garrone’s “The Tale of Tales” premiered on the festival’s second night. It was hailed as a masterpiece by a large (and mostly English-speaking) segment of the press, but also panned by some – I felt closer to the latter.
Garrone’s fantasy marked a departure from the naturalism of his previous movies, notably his savage Neapolitan mob hit “Gomorrah”. Judging by the trailer, Sorrentino’s new film pushes further in the stylistic, mannerist strand of his recent work (“Il Divo” and “La Grande Bellezza”). There is another Italian cinema, one defined by a pared-down, minimalist cinematography in which complex emotions are conveyed with sobriety and candour. This is where the third Italian director in competition, Nanni Moretti, belongs. His new entry, “My Mother” (Mia Madre), opened on Saturday to heartfelt applause. It was a strong showing from the 2001 Palme d’Or winner (for “The Son’s Room”) on his seventh selection at the world’s leading film festival.
“My Mother” revolves around the personal crisis of Margherita (touchingly played by Margherita Buy), a filmmaker focused on social themes. Margherita is at an impasse. Her new film on a labour dispute is going nowhere, her love life is unravelling, her daughter is failing at school, and her mother is dying in hospital. Margherita is burdened by guilt, fear, and a feeling of impotence. Her sense of inadequacy is compounded by the comparison with her brother Giovanni (Nanni Moretti), who brings home-cooked meals, composure and tickling good humour on his hospital visits.
Things get worse with the arrival of Barry Huggins (John Turturro), a brash and boastful American primadonna who wreaks havoc on the film set. A self-proclaimed darling of Stanley Kubrick, Barry turns out to be a hopeless actor with a frightfully bad accent who can never remember a line. He brings a clichéd view of Italy that matches his clichéd incarnation of the callous American boss. Turturro excels in the role, punctuating the film with exquisite comic interludes.
“My Mother” marks Moretti's return to autobiographical subjects – in this case the recent loss of his mother. It also confirms the filmmaker's gradual shift to supporting roles. His characteristic self-doubt and internal questioning have been transferred to other characters, whether Margherita or Michel Piccoli’s unwilling pope in “Habemus Papam”, with Moretti himself now posing as the counselor. The choice of a woman to embody Moretti’s nerve-racked alter ego may upset some, but there is also an understated progressive note in the depth of character given to both Margherita and her mother – who is a lot more than a cosseting, spaghetti-cooking mamma.
Admittedly, I’m a sucker for Moretti movies. Not all his work is equally rewarding, but poignancy and candour rarely desert him. “My Mother” is the latest reflection on haplessness and inadequacy by a perennial outsider who has always kept a critical distance from his generation and social milieu. It is a tender look at adults who can't stop being children, brothers unable to comfort their younger siblings, filmmakers powerless to portray (let alone change) their world, and political and economic disputes that feel tired and repetitive.
Moretti’s film was warmly greeted and hailed by some as a first serious contender for the Palme d’Or. It is certainly prize-worthy, not least for Buy’s performance, but there is still a long way to go before next week’s closing ceremony. By Sunday, the focus had shifted to Maïwenn’s “My King”, the first of five French entries in this year’s competition. I wasn’t at the press screening this morning, but I hear the end was greeted by one critic’s angry clamor. “It’s not finished!” the man shouted repeatedly, though it wasn’t clear whether he was complaining about people leaving early or the film failing to produce a proper ending. But one thing was clear enough: he was Italian, of course.