Mia Madre online movie review - Funny/sad, reality/fiction/dream: a confusing picture
"Mia Madre" is a slow burner. Don't expect to appreciate the movie or even understand its point until at least half way.
To simplify, Moretti's films can roughly be divided into two categories: social satire (La messa è finita, Red Lob, The Caiman) and intimate works (Cario diario, Aprile, The Son's Room). "Mia Madre" combines both. Some of his films are mostly funny (Red Lob, Caro diario, Aprile, The Caiman), some are sad (La messa è finita to some extent, The Son's Room). Again, "Mia Madre" is between the two. (Side note: to those of you who haven't seen it, I strongly recommend "La messa è finita", for me Moretti's best so far.)
These elements (social/intimate, funny/sad) slowly build up and reach full speed in the second half of the movie.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
"Mia Madre" actually has two stories: the shooting of a film in a factory which provides the social, humorous touch and the illness of the director's mother with intimate, sad tones (this is based on Moretti's own experience, as he lost his mother in 2010 while shooting his previous movie). The link between the two is the director, Margherita, who is struggling with both as well as with her emotions (lover, daughter, sometimes brother). With her mother dying, she tries to find sense in her work and her personal life? without much success. As spectators we then wonder what is the meaning of her life, and of life in general.
"Bring me back to reality!" shouts the American actor Margherita hired (John Turturro, excellent in being a lousy performer). Then, in the following image her mother is in the hospital. Is this reality, suffering and death? Are we sure we do not prefer fiction? Well, seeing as the shooting of the film goes in the factory, maybe not. These "film scenes" are a direct reference to the Italian social cinema that was dominant from end of WWII to approximately the 70s, and which inspired Moretti throughout his career. But the shooting falls flat: problems cumulate, the plot looks simplistic, dialogues sound silly, characters are caricatures. However we are not sure here if Moretti is criticising the uselessness of the film being made or the fact that nowadays society is not any more willing to accept such films, despite the accuracy of their themes (crisis, takeover, redundancies). Regardless, the scenes with Turturro provide some comical relief, notably the hilarious sequence where he drives a car.
So what other relief from reality is there? Dreams maybe? Sometimes we are not sure if "Mia Madre" is reality or dream. But since the oneiric scenes look more like nightmares, they do not really constitute a good alternative to reality either. We see one of Margherita's dreams, but it looks frightfully real (people waiting in a huge line like statues). In another scene, Margherita's apartment is completely flooded and she has to move: this is filmed like a nightmare but is actually real. Likewise, once she has moved into her mother's deserted apartment, she cannot find papers and cries: a typical nightmare anguish where one cannot find what one is looking for. In yet another scene, to prevent her mother from driving, she tears her driver's licence and deliberately crashes her car in front of the terrified old lady; yet it is impossible to figure if this violent scene is real or not.
"Mia Madre" also freely mixes linear narration and flashbacks without transition, hence we sometimes are not sure where scenes fit chronologically. Notably, the movie ends with a replica from the mother who already passed away, and we don't exactly know when this happened. Here is probably the metaphorical meaning of Margherita asking her actors to be at the same time "inside and outside their characters": we are both inside and outside reality and time. Likewise, Margherita seems to be inside and outside of life, partly failing her work, her sentimental life, helplessly seeing her mother drift away. So just like Margherita, as spectators we are a bit lost in the mix of reality vs dream and present vs past. To add to the confusion, the movie's tone is double-sided as we have seen.
A relief in knowledge then? Margherita's mother is a former Latin teacher (just like Moretti's used to be) and despite her illness manages to help and interest her granddaughter. Latin: a useless old language in our modern society, somewhat like the film Margherita is shooting? but useful for thinking and understanding, as she tries to explain to her daughter. Also, the mother's former students are so grateful for her teaching that they come after many years to thank her even if, in a typical Moretti's ironical twist, they are too late. So the mother's knowledge will be gone, but will partly survive with the next generations. This might be the final message of the movie, one of hope despite the sad undertone of the last replica: "What are you thinking about?" Margherita asks her mother ? "Tomorrow", she answers calmly (in Italian, "Domani" is even more beautiful)? even though for her there is no tomorrow, and the movie ends. Non c'è domani.