There are obvious echoes of Fellini’s “8½” in Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre,” in which film director Margherita (Margherita Buy) struggles to complete her latest picture—a drama about labor unrest at a family factory recently sold to an American entrepreneur who intends to lay off a large part of the workforce—while contending with the illness of her mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a former schoolteacher whose cardiac problems have forced her into the hospital. The doctors indicate that the condition is terminal, but Margherita is simply unable to cope with the reality that her mother is dying, and the possibility casts a shadow on both her personal and professional life.
Margherita frequently visits Ada in the hospital, where her soft-spoken brother Giovanni (Moretti), who’s taken a leave of absence from his engineering job and is questioning whether he wants to return to it, serves as the primary caregiver. Ada also gets occasional visits from old friends, though her mind tends to wander and she sometimes feels irritated with them. Above all she’d like to go back home, although it becomes increasingly clear that’s unlikely to happen. In addition, Margherita has to deal with her daughter Livia (Beatrice Mancini), a teen having some difficulties at school (Ada wants to give her some tutorial assistance in her Latin studies), and with her boyfriend Vittorio (Enrico Ianniello), an actor in the film she’s making, as well as with her ex-husband, who shares custody of Livia.
These domestic responsibilities have an impact on her ability to finish her film—exacerbated by her American star Barry Huggins (John Turturro), a histrionic sort of guy who talks incessantly about working with Kubrick (though he never actually did) and sometimes awakens from terrible nightmares, like one in which Kevin Spacey is trying to kill him. Huggins is constantly trying too hard, but he nonetheless keeps bungling scenes and forgetting lines, literally driving Margherita up the wall in one sequence when she’s trying to film him at the wheel of a car and giving Turturro a great many comic opportunities that he eagerly seizes on. But he also takes advantage of a revelation late in the action that makes Barry a more sympathetic figure, and a rather touching one.
Moretti captures the haze through which Margherita is trying to navigate through a combination of “real” scenes involving her family and the film crew, in which one can sense her losing control, with dreamlike ones that see her, for example, talking with her younger self when she passes a long line of customers waiting in a ticket line at a movie theatre. But there are moments in which the real and the imaginary blur: when Margherita awakens from sleep and finds the floor of her bedroom covered with water, for example, it seems that we’ve entered a hallucination, only to find that there’s a much more mundane explanation.
Moretti’s sedate, undemonstrative style can’t compete with the wild exuberance that Fellini brought to his portrait of a film director in crisis, and he doesn’t manage to bring all the comic, dramatic and tragic elements together into a completely satisfying whole; while the juxtapositions of the disparate pieces aren’t jarring, neither do they fit together as smoothly as one might wish. Still, in its quiet, subdued way “Mia Madre” touches an emotional chord, enhanced by Buy’s subtle, multifaceted performance and assured turns from Lazzarini, Mancini, Ianniello and Moretti himself. Turturro, on the other hand, is in many respects out of another film, bringing more than a touch of broad farce to an otherwise more contemplative work. It’s undeniable, though, that he’s extremely funny. Cinematographer Arnaldo Catinari abets the sense of dislocation by subtly alternating styles for the film’s different narrative levels, and the music score offers an eclectic mixture of excerpts from artists as varied as Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass and Arvo Part.
“Mia Madre” won’t displace “8½” from the cinematic pantheon, but it offers an affecting alternate perspective on the themes of Fellini’s masterwork.