It is not a secret on this blog that I am a fan of Italian films, and may be slightly biased in favour of them (see Summer Film Viewing for my appraisal of a film which may not be the best of the bunch but for some reason appears as such to my eyes), so I was of course looking forward to Nanni Moretti’s latest feature Mia Madre. This was following Habemus Papam (2011), the film starring Michel Piccoli as a Pope attempting to renounce his position as head Pontiff. Moretti, an ever presence in his films, plays the psychoanalyst hired to talk some sense into Il Papa or to at least get to the bottom of his worries and neuroses. This is a film which has been cautiously derided by the critics, an apparently toothless follow up to his biting satire of Silvio Berlusconi in The Caiman (2006), yet, I have to admit, and this will not be the last time I disagree with accepted judgements in this blog post, that I loved the film. Moretti was of course treading lightly there, rejecting the full throttle satire some critics expected of him in favour of a fairly formulaic structure, but it did have some great moments, especially the papacy voting scenes, where thoughts of the Vatican’s many cardinals are made audible, with each hoping that they will not be picked as Pope. Unfortunately, during the filming of Habemus Papam, Moretti lost his mother and this moment of intense grief appears to be inspiration for his following feature Mia Madre.
Mia Madre at first look, appears to fall into that Italian tradition of established auteurs ruminating on their art – the film about filmmaking – but soon we realise that the film is about Moretti’s own experience, as an artist struggling to work while his mother is suffering. Margherita Buy replaces Moretti as the director figure in the film, a filmmaker dealing with fear, anxiety and subsequently grief as she attempts to make her tale of employees versus employers while her mind is never at rest. There are some surreal touches – moments which recalled Fellini – hardly fantastic or spectacular, but occupying the ambiguous space between reality and dreams, when one is unsure whether something happened or not. I thought that such scenes may relate to Margherita’s suggestion, to an audience of journalists and critics, that she makes films solely about reality, that the reality of her life and the fantasy of cinema have traded places.
For her undoubtedly left-wing film of protesting employees against a self-absorbed employer, American actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro) is hired to play enemy of the people. Huggins is of course a joke, not only in his similarity to the actor who plays him, an American of Italian descent, a film star who has not quite broken into A-list status, and some of the best scenes arise out of the war between him and the director Margherita. I have recently been reading Sally Potter’s book Naked Cinema: Working with Actors and it seems to me that Margherita disobeys many of rules Potter offers as those a good director should embrace. She is arrogant, demagogic, endlessly putting down both her cast and crew and only once telling an actor that they had been good. I was surprised that Huggins was really the only one to clash with Margherita, perhaps the others were too afraid of holding their positions to speak up.
I do not think that this was Moretti’s best film, and I may discreetly admit that I preferred its predecessor Habemus Papam, however, Mia Madre is unquestionably a film of quality. Before I watched Mia Madre (I’ve swapped the order here), I sat through Anton Corbijn’s Life starring Robert Pattinson as Dennis Stock, a photographer in pursuit of the pre-fame James Dean (Dane DeHaan). Stock was the author of some of the most iconic pictures of Dean, photographs which helped to establish Dean’s image as arbiter of cool and awkward authenticity, however, it is up for debate whether he is a character worthy of a motion picture. This is currently the argument that the British press have taken in relation to the film, that Pattinson is cold and distant and therefore doing the film no favours in its reconciliation with Dehaan’s awkward aloofness. It is true that there is a lack of chemistry on screen between the two characters – Corbijn should have made more of Dean’s ambiguous sexuality – however, I do not believe this was significantly to the film’s detriment. This was of course a very personal project for Corbijn, who himself was a very successful photographer in his youth, and it should be seen as a meditation on the art of photography rather than psychology and personality. While calls for the emptiness of Corbijn’s photography have been made, I did legitimately enjoy the film, not a masterpiece by any means but as a decent attempt to tell the history and birth of some of the most iconic photos of Dean (and I will leave it up to the viewer to answer whether I should have spent less time ogling Corbijn’s cinematography and more on deconstructing the film’s content).