Mia Madre

Posted by Joel Copling on September 10, 2016

Lest it seem like a flippant descriptor, "Mia Madre" is the definition of "pleasant." That isn't meant, as it might indicate, as a backhanded compliment but as a genuine one. It is a pleasant, sweet-natured effort -- modest in its ambitions and production and roughly equal to them. That, of course, means that the film, as written by Francesco Piccolo, Valia Santella, and director Nanni Moretti, is entirely unpretentious in its ideals and themes. It speaks them directly to the audience with a surprising softness, and the lead performance is a major aid in this factor. Margherita Buy plays a director who shares the actress's Christian name, dealing with issues both personal and of business matters, with a weariness entirely belied by the life in her eyes. It's a very solid performance as a woman who must exert control that often ignored or challenged.

Her film, a political drama about laborers whose factory is being bought up while they lose their jobs, isn't going well. Scenes with lots of extras become confused morasses of actors not following simple commands, an assistant director who seems not to understand Margherita's wishes, and a lead actor with whom the filmmaker is romantically involved in an on-again, off-again way. The real trouble shows up with the likes of Barry Huggins (John Turturro), an American actor who brags of almost working with Stanley Kubrick. The stuff with the movie-making is played just right so that Margherita's tumultous personal life isn't oppressively dour. It is, though, quite sad, as the titular figure factors in. Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) is slowly wasting away, one guesses from old age or cancer, and Margherita must juggle both sources of great strain while her brother Giovanni (Moretti) has taken a leave of absence from work to care for their mother.

The trajectory of these two narrative threads is fairly conventional, and the risk is there, always, for the proceedings to shift to quirky misery at any moment. We know the film shoot will continue to go badly, and we know that the mother's health will continue to deteriorate. Fortunately, the screenwriters rein in the tendency to devolve into antics that might corrode the film's authenticity, mainly due to the performances from a solid cast. Not only is Buy a lovely presence, but Turturro is a total hoot as Huggins, a Brando-type actor who has difficulty learning his dialogue and a very amusing scene involving a makeshift vehicle surrounded by cameras, and Lazzarini is heartbreaking as the dying matriarch. "Mia Madre" doesn't feature a cumulative effect that shakes the earth, but its sweetness certainly lingers.

Film Information

Margherita Buy (Margherita), John Turturro (Barry Huggins), Giulia Lazzarini (Ada), Nanni Moretti (Giovanni), Beatrice Mancini (Livia), Stefano Abbati (Federico), Enrico Ianniello (Vittorio).

Directed by Nanni Moretti and written by Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, and Valia Santella.

Rated R (language).

106 minutes.

Released in select cities on August 26, 2016.