Italian auteur Nanni Moretti is well-known for his bittersweet explorations of love, loss and mortality. Mia Madre (2015), his beautiful, humane portrait of bereavement is his best yet. Film director Margherita (Margherita Buy) finds it hard to accept that her mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) is dying. Ada has been hospitalised with an enlarged heart and yearns to go home. Margherita and her brother Giovanni (Moretti) can’t bear to tell her that there’s nothing more that can be done.
Margherita envies Giovanni’s composure after he calmly decides to leave his job in order to spend the last weeks with his mother unhampered. Instead, she seeks solace in her work. Margherita’s latest film is about striking factory workers and their attempts to save their jobs. John Turturro plays the entrepreneur who is responsible for laying them off. Turturro’s character, Barry Huggins, is a self-absorbed, Hollywood actor unable to remember his lines. He drives Margherita to distraction but also diverts her attention from her mother’s weakening state.
Huggins acts as a foil to Margherita and his buffoonery helps leaven the pathos. In the film within the film, Margherita’s steely side is revealed as she berates her crew for their choice of extras and rails at Huggins for not being able to speak his lines at the same time as driving a car. Margherita on set is completely different from Margherita by her mother’s bedside, although in one memorable exchange her anxieties spill over into frustration at Ada. However, it’s the personal, rather than the political, that is Moretti’s main focus and this is evident in the intensity of the hospital scenes contrasted with the increasingly emotional vacuity of the film set. As much as it is a profound meditation on mortality, Mia Madre is about Margherita’s existential crisis, revealed in her interactions with those she is closest to: The mother she is terrified of losing, the boyfriend she dumps so coldly, the brother she comes increasingly to rely on and the love for her daughter Livia (Beatrice Mancini) whom, she realises, she has neglected.
Throughout Margherita’s subconscious anxieties are brilliantly visualised by Moretti in his use of flashback and, in one scene, are given an extra layer of meaning by a Leonard Cohen anthem. Those who have experienced the loss of a parent will immediately connect with Mia Madre. Others will be moved by Moretti’s sensitive treatment of a difficult subject. Losing a loved one often produces a sense of hyperreality. Margherita’s nightmares and memories compete with reality; often the boundaries are deliberately blurred and she is left questioning all that she thinks she knows. Buy delivers a winning performance as a woman bereft, on the edge, and this is perfectly complemented by Turturro’s exuberant comic turn.