Slap a meta-prefix onto an otherwise dreary signifier and my inner-Arts grad is impulsively aroused, such that I could be completely engrossed by a common cow if it were described as a meta-meat pie. So a flick about a woman struggling to cope in the workplace while coming to terms with the impending death of her mother? Not so much. But an autofictive film from a recently maternally-bereaved filmmaker about a filmmaker struggling to cope in the workplace while dealing with the impending death of her mother? And with a biographical and industry-topical gender reversal to boot? Take me to the ticket booth.
This is the underlying basis of award-winning Italian writer-director Nanni Moretti’s latest human-centric offering, Mia Madre, following up from 2011’s Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope), during the editing of which the auteur was to contend with an ailing mother. Stepping in as Moretti’s on-screen avatar is veteran actress Margherita Buy (Margherita) in the film’s first and possibly foundational misstep. But more on this critical worm-can to come.
In her role juggling the professional and personal (likely both on and off-screen), Buy spends the majority of Mia Madre switching between expressions of generic anguish and mild, ineffectual exasperation, very much to mirror this reviewer’s own. Margherita for the most part is portrayed with about the same flatness and depth as a strand of gluten-free fettuccine floating in a fountain, and when the emotional break-downs do occur, in what should be the film’s dramatic high-points, the lack of verisimilitude as to established character development enervates rather than enriches any empathy. With a slew of acting awards to her name, it would be fair to surmise Buy is hamstrung here by the material.
Enter Barry Huggins, the erratic and ego-driven American star of Margherita’s current production, played by John Turturro in full glorious Technicolor™. Rather than simply providing the light relief, Turturro commands the script and screen at every turn, delivering a cartoonishly comic master-class before revealing the greater problems with the film’s bi-polar construction by again stealing the show in the character’s more sensitive denouement. The contrast in the handling of the leads is painful, with Mia Madre returning to drab melodrama in the instant of Turturro’s absence, often even just from the frame, as if an accountant interrupting a zoo-keeper to regale the audience with work-place anecdotes of their own.
At one point, Ada, the deteriorating mother (ably played by Giulia Lazzarini), stirs from her fog to ask, "How is it that the film is a little bland and a little in colour?" I presume this a self-reflexive signpost of sorts, but a post-development one without a clear destination and only the sketchy directions across the treacherous terrain of my initially alluded to contention; the casting of Buy set the production irretrievably off course from the outset. Perhaps a hermeneutically-stretched parallel to the on-screen plot concerning Barry, but somewhat reinforced in the script with Margherita’s repeated ambiguous refrain to her performers to ‘stand alongside’ their characters.
Here, Moretti himself plays the quietly devoted brother and son Giovanni, and, as a regular Moretti collaborator and presumed friend, sets Buy up to play himself opposite himself under his own direction in an emotionally reflective role and not entirely favourable light. An expectedly problematic arrangement, and while the dialogue tells us that Buy’s Margherita is self-absorbed and abrasive, well, I just wasn’t buying it. What then may have been a challenging gender reversal becomes instead a hindrance – the character’s tempered manner and insecurity on set essentially serving to reinforce socially gendered stereotypes.
Ironically, the film’s core emotional response to a dying mother if similarly depicted by a male protagonist would have itself presented a subtle and engaging cinematic reversal, albeit one that may have fed alternative Italian mamma-boy stereotypes in the process. Ultimately, the film suffers rather than benefits from its split personality, the confessional and the fictive elements incongruously yoked rather than carefully spliced, providing at most an instructive insight into the impediments of standing alongside one’s own characterisation. It may all sound very meta, but I’m afraid Mia Madre is solo una mucca.
Mia Madre opens 5th May at Palace Nova cinemas. For times and dates, visit their website.