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In Nanni Moretti’s best films the life force and the laugh force are inseparable. Mia Madre would be funereal with self-pity without its comedy. This fictional processing of the Italian actor-comedian-director’s grief at his own mother’s passing — which happened during the shooting of his previous film We Have a Pope — is a rueful musing on death combined with a nearly-slapstick celebration of the chaos, also known as life, that precedes it.
It’s an inspired tragicomedy. Whenever it gets close to the serious, it gets funny. Even funny, it never quite relinquishes the poignant. Margherita (Margherita Buy), Moretti’s alter ego, is a Rome filmmaker struggling, during her mother’s last illness, with a labour of love turning into mere labour: a movie about union unrest. If it weren’t already a pastiche of the leftist postures often ascribed to NM, the film-within-film would be saved from the pontifical by the arrival of John Turturro as an imported Hollywood star.
Turturro’s Barry Huggins throws ego fits, broadcasts his nightmares (“Kevin Spacey tried to kill me”) and has a tour de force extended tantrum during a canteen scene. You could say the “outer film” (Moretti’s) duplicates the stratagems of the “inner film” (Margherita’s). Huggins as token Hollywood star fictional and Turturro as ditto actual are there to show how life can become an agglomeration of vanities, accommodations and market calculations, which refuse to be bonfired. Is that bad if so? Even the vulgar and mercantile are part of the life force. And certainly, here, the laugh force.
The Margherita story is the gentler counter-theme. Her dreams are woven into her waking life; at times we hardly know which is which. For Moretti that’s perfect. The lifelikeness of dreams is one of life’s richest jokes. Surely Margherita is walking along a vast cinema queue, greeting or being greeted Fellini-ishly by all her friends? No, that’s a dream. Surely she’s only dreaming when her flat seems to get flooded overnight? No, that’s real.
This is the twilight, protean world of approaching loss. And even here, with Moretti himself playing the heroine’s brother, a maddening goody-goody with a wisdom for all occasions, the maudlin is kept at bay by the comical. Mia Madre is a triumph of tonal complexity. It’s a funny tragedy, a serious comedy, a film about death that has its wake and eats it.