It’s Nanni Moretti’s misfortune that his new film is reaching American shores so soon after the release of Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom.” Both deal with a family’s grief at the loss of a son, and while there are substantial differences between them (the final acts, in particular, are utterly dissimilar), Field’s picture is clearly superior–sharper, better crafted, and far more haunting and powerful.
That isn’t to say that “The Son’s Room” doesn’t have virtues. It convincingly portrays, in a commendably restrained style, an upper-middle class Italian family: father Giovanni (Moretti, who also directs and co-wrote the script, based on his story idea), a successful analyst; wife Paola (Laura Morante), director of an art gallery; daughter Irene (Jasmine Trinca), a determined basketball player; and son Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), a gregarious, athletic youngster. The relationships among them seem unforced and natural, not exaggeratedly melodramatic. After Andrea’s accidental death, too, some sequences in the film are quite moving in their simplicity. One shows family and friends watching as the boy’s coffin is methodically closed and sealed. Another, both subtle and riveting, depicts the impact on the family through Giovanni’s anger over the damaged nature of the household nicknacks and dishes. At moments such as these, the film exhibits real, simmering passion without resorting to crude overemphasis.
Unfortunately, most of the picture falls substantially short of this standard. A long opening episode about Andrea’s possible involvement in a theft at school and his parents’ reaction to the charge against him is meandering and contrived. The material concerning Giovanni’s patients is almost all much too obvious; at times one feels as though we were watching an Italian translation of the old “Bob Newhart Show”–each client is more a walking quirk than an authentic character (and none is nearly as amusing as Mr. Carlin). As a consequence the fact that the doctor is called away to confer with one of them on the day Andrea dies–and has to set aside his plan to spend time with the boy in order to do so, a circumstance that leads him to blame himself, along with the patient, for his son’s demise–never develops the poignancy it should. A concluding episode featuring a girl with whom Andrea had once enjoyed a single day of puppy love isn’t very well developed, and it leads to a denouement that’s curiously flat and inconclusive, though it wants to be quietly uplifting.
The biggest problem, however, is that while Moretti’s film is called “The Son’s Room,” it’s really the father’s movie. It may be unfair to suggest that this derives from Moretti’s habit of putting himself at the center of his films, often in an autobiographical way, but in any case it seriously weakens the picture. We never really get to know Andrea–Sanfelice remains a handsome, smiling cipher, a nonentity whose only memorable characteristic is his cherubic face–and so the boy’s untimely loss never affects us as strongly as it should. (A conversation in which the horrible circumstances of his death are alluded to would have carried more weight had he been a more textured figure.) Although Trinca brings greater richness to Irene, Morante–fine actress though she is–is underutilized as Paola. Instead Moretti keeps the spotlight to himself, and unfortunately as an actor he doesn’t possess the range or intensity to justify all the attention. There’s an unfortunate hint of narcissism in the choices he’s made as writer, director and star; and his laid-back, restrained acting style eventually grows wearying when it receives such focus.
If you’ve not seen “In the Bedroom,” “The Son’s Room” may have greater impact on you. If you have, however, you’re likely to find Moretti’s variation on a similar theme at best a poor relation, a film that doesn’t cut nearly as close to the bone, and one whose studied deliberation comes perilously close to ponderousness.