Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre feels like two different films. One is Moretti’s own personal story of loss, inspired by the fact that his own mother was dying as he made his previous film. It’s also reminiscent of the loss so beautifully captured in his Palme d’Or winning The Son’s Room.
The other part is one lifted from European art films going back at least as far as Federico Fellini and his film 8½. It’s the personal life intruding on the world of the professional, the people you love encroaching on the need to make art, one’s whole personal and professional existence coming to a point of crisis.
The problem is that the film feels very much like two separate and overly familiar parts, rather than a coherent whole. The more personal side to the story in which Moretti’s stand in film director Margherita attends her mother’s hospital bed is largely free of event. Rather than being emotional or touching, these sections feel derivative and uninspired. Moretti may have been digging into his own personal history for these scenes, but he became heavily reliant on convention, which makes the emotions feel slight.
This is probably largely down to the focus on that old art house cliché which dominates the second part of this film; that of the film director/artist struggling to express him/herself. We saw something very similar in Moretti’s paisan Paolo Sorrentino’s pompous The Great Beauty on a grander scale. Here we’re watching Margherita direct a film on worker rights, which she seems to become less enamoured by as the shoot progresses.
It is in these scenes that John Turturro makes his appearance and this is by far the strongest element of the whole film. Turturro is in a film completely of his own devising whenever he appears. His scenes are straight comedy and they work very well. But in the context of the rest of the film they’re adrift in an ocean of mundanity and dull grief.
There’s little else to recommend Mia Madre beyond these details. It isn’t terrible by any stretch, but there’s really nothing about this film that makes it stand out or feel memorable in any way. Its identity is buried beneath the clichés Moretti relies so heavily on. The Son’s Room remains a modern classic of European art cinema, but Mia Madre is unlikely to enjoy such a reputation.