Written and directed by Nanni Moretti, Mia Madre introduces us to Margherita (played by the similarly named Margherita Buy), an Italian director struggling to keep her chaotic life together. Her politically charged movie, a daughter she has to share with her ex-husband, and the introduction of American actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro) to her set all exacerbate her stress, but it’s coming to terms with her ill mother Ada’s (Giulia Lazzarini) mortality that truly manages to destabilize her.
While it’s a fairly somber subject that frame’s Mia Madre, there is plenty of humour and entertaining character work keeping the film from being a total downer. Viewers will likely struggle with the slow pacing in the film earlier stages, but once the story gets moving, Mia Madre finds itself happily within the dramedy territory it pitches itself to be on. It’s not laugh-a-minute stuff, but between Turturro’s charismatic and pompous character and some enjoyable situational comedy, there is plenty of material to keep you from wallowing in the heavy subtext.
Moretti is adept at dancing between the various tones of his film, creating an emotionally dynamic journey for the viewer. But while he does a great job of balancing the lighter and darker aspects of his movie, he doesn’t really succeed in making either of them stand out all that much. Mia Madre does manage to leave you having experienced a variety of emotions, but none enough to make it in any way memorable. Likewise, while Turturro and Buy have great comedic chemistry, there’s nothing specifically funny that you can look back on beyond the general amusement of watching them get worked up and yell at each other.
What does stand out though is the warmth Mia Madre manages to make you feel as you watch its characters support one another when the pain does start to bubble up to the surface. Frustrated as they get with each other, Margherita and Huggins are able to share some tender moments when he can step away from himself and see the pain she’s in. But it’s amongst Margherita’s family that this shines through the most. Just watching them interact, both lovingly and with all-too recognizable familial disdain, proves to be the most subtly beautiful and authentic trick up the director’s sleeve.
There’s a moving banality to Margherita’s pain. Dealing with the imminent loss of a parent is the kind of everyday tragedy that can rock you to your core, but doesn’t excuse you from the pressures of everyday life. It’s something we all have to go through, and as such something Margherita just has to deal with and keep on moving. Buy is profoundly empathetic, adding weight to every small frustration that she tries (and fails) to bury down. While she conveys demonstrable sorrow and anger, it’s Margherita’s sense of guilt that cuts deepest. Quick flashbacks and a quiet shame underlying Buy’s performance, striking all too familiar for anyone who has ever lost someone and regrets the pain they caused before that someone left.
Turturro’s Huggins is clearly a much less layered character, but he does manage to steal the show whenever he’s on screen. Desperate for attention, he happily lies about his acting accomplishments, and then just as happily admits that he made it all up. Constantly forgetting his lines and muddling up his Italian, Huggins causes Margherita no end of frustration, especially when he loses his cool and refuses to acknowledge that he may be the problem.
While Turturro’s comic relief can be a slight distraction from Moretti’s story, it’s one that turns out to be critically important. For all the moving content Mia Madre has to offer, it takes too long before it is able to engage the audience, and often only just manages to hold on to your attention throughout what follows. It’s entertaining to watch everything get juggled around, but the conclusion does seem forgone and doesn’t pack quite the punch it needed to in order to bring it all home. Mia Madre is a film filled with fine performances and plentiful moving sequences, but is ultimately an unfortunately forgettable story.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10