Last Friday I travelled to the cinema with the intention of seeing the weepy Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette comedy Miss You Already, but due to a series of late buses and an unwillingness to venture out again on Saturday, the film that I instead found myself sitting down to watch was the Italian drama Mia Madre (My Mother), a film by Nanni Moretti and a film I knew absolutely nothing about. When it comes to foreign cinema, very few offerings ever achieve a UK cinematic release, so I was intrigued by what the film had to offer that made it a competitive choice amongst the Everests and the Maze Runners of the pre awards season September/October stretch.
Mia Madre is a melancholy yet surprisingly humorous drama about Margherita (played by Margherita Buy), a middle aged film director who is in the midst of a personal and professional crisis as her ailing mother is dying and her latest picture is being made difficult by an upstart American film actor called Barry Huggins (John Turturro). As Margherita’s grasp of control on both the health of her mother and the quality of her film begins to wain, she is forced to confront and come to terms with many different aspects of her life, and the picture operates on a rather interesting level of a mixture of sombre realism with occasional forays in to more surrealist techniques such as Margherita having conversations with her younger self. The best way I can think to describe Mia Madre to a wider audience is that it feels very much like a Woody Allen film, if Woody Allen were Italian, of course. The dialogue, mostly mundane but charming in a humanistic kind of way, is fast paced and has that special quality of feeling inconsequential yet vital at the same time. Though the overarching theme of inevitable loss is one that is undeniably mournful and painful, the film is only truly sad when it has to be, instead providing more a calm, dramatic take on Margherita’s emotions than a inconsolable or off the hand grief stricken one. There is something quite fascinating in seeing interesting characters simply getting on with their lives and seeing the way their internal struggles impact on the decisions they make, and the filmmakers inject humour in to elements including the language barrier between Margherita and Barry, her increasing frustration with his questionable acting skills and even the bittersweet but enjoyable moments of laughter she shares with her mother (played by Giulia Lazzarini). The biggest compliment I can think to give Mia Madre is that, though the death of Margherita’s mother is signposted as almost a certainty from the offset, the viewer finds such great enjoyment and intrigue in the other aspects of the protagonist’s life that the climactic and inevitable fatal moment still comes as something of a shock and gut punch. The audience are not simply sat there waiting for the expected, they become so endeared to Margherita that an element of what the character feels at that moment is felt by the viewer too, and this is surely the mark of a well executed and truly affecting drama.
Though the writing and direction by Nanni Moretti is of a very high quality, much of the film’s success is owed to a strong and captivating performance by Margherita Buy as her namesake protagonist. Margherita comes across as a headstrong, independent woman who has a position of power in a predominantly male dominated industry, and her assertive nature provides a good marker for the audience amongst a working environment filled with eccentricity and potential chaos. Buy expertly guides the character from this initial air of comfort and power through to a more unsure and conflicted personality as the health of her mother declines, and the viewer empathy charts are off the scale as the actress drags us through every bit of despair that she allows herself to feel. At time heart wrenching, but very importantly very naturally funny when called for. John Turturro as the imported American movie star Barry Huggins provides a much needed injection of pace and tom foolery whenever he is on screen. Though his character feels straight out of the eccentric movie star hand book, his off-centre behaviour combined with Margherita’s straight faced, almost sarcastic edge, proves for a delightful clashing of personalities and is at the heart of much of the film’s enjoyable comedy.
Overall, Mia Madre is a thoughtful drama with an enjoyable comedic edge that leaves the audience pondering several different issues and themes. Though the film is not loud in its approach, it nevertheless packs a punch. Fans of Woody Allen’s very particular brand of self effacing, fast talking, melancholy comedy will be very likely to enjoy the film, which though primarily being a drama, certainly boasts more humour than the majority of self professed ‘comedies’ currently on the market. After reading a handful of reviews for Miss You Already, it would seem a though fate smiled upon me that day and deliberately made by bus late. If you happen to have a choice between the two, I would suggest a tasty and satisfying Italian over what looks to be a cheesy American hamburger.