As a middle-aged woman navigating the back nine of life, I’ve grown increasingly used to feeling irrelevant in the face of new technological products, performance events, music, books and movies that I generally find uninteresting and quickly realize are not designed to speak to me anyway. So what a wonderful surprise it was to come upon Mia Madre, the new Italian film by Nanni Moretti about a single, female film director named Margherita (Margherita Buy) maneuvering her way through middle age. While Margherita struggles to make a socially conscious movie about violent labor-management confrontations in a factory, her personal life is fraught with sorrows: her mother lies dying in a hospital, her latest romantic relationship just fizzled and her adolescent daughter is floundering.
Despite its melancholy themes, Mia Madre is a feel-good movie. Granted, its mature story (written by Moretti, Gaia Manzini, Valia Santella and Chiara Valerio) centers on Margherita’s weighty emotional state, a complex of newfound feelings that anyone of a certain age will understand: a sense of being surrounded by incompetence; fear and uncertainty about the future; an increased level of self-awareness accompanied by decreasing levels of understanding of, yet growing concerns with, the larger meanings of life; and the disappointing discovery of your own helplessness in combatting losses and change. Yet Moretti (who also plays the supporting role of Giovanni, Margherita’s brother) ingeniously infuses the film with brightness at every turn, so the sadness never overwhelms, but rather comes at you in gentle, caressing waves. You welcome the chance to share Margherita’s troubles because Moretti signals throughout that nothing going on here is really a bad thing.
The film is shot in bright light; there are none of those dark, shadowy, nighttime scenes one might expect in a film of this nature. And John Turturro—as the leading actor in Margherita’s movie, an import from America who can’t remember his lines—brings over-the-top comedy to scenes that move seamlessly between the moviemaking action and Margherita’s inner thoughts and memories, depicted through short, mysterious, dreamlike flashbacks.
Because Moretti guides us to consider the present as just one link in the longer chain of life, the mournful qualities don’t overwhelm the movie and we realize Margherita’s current hardships are all surmountable, largely because of her past experiences. The key, of course, is madre. A character based on Moretti’s own mother, Margherita’s mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), is a former teacher whom everyone adores and whose influence ranges wide. Though it’s sometimes heartrending to watch Ada’s mental decline, it’s equally uplifting to be reminded of how much she lives on—both on-screen and off. There’s a long and marvelous thread of goodness stretching from Moretti’s mother, through her son, via this film, to the aging viewers, who will be comforted by the movie’s brilliant blend of pathos and merriment.
Feature photo: Everett Collection