TIFF 2015 Review | ‘My Mother’ Hangs Between Art and Death
Palme d’Or-winning director Nanni Moretti translates his experience editing his last film film (the Vatican romp We Have a Pope) while caring for his dying mother in the semi-autobiographical My Mother (“Mia Madre”). Careening gently between sharply observed drama and broad showbiz satire, it finds Moretti’s female stand-in, Margherita (Margherita Buy), rushing between the hospital and the set of her self-serious workers’ rights drama, which is being derailed by divo star Barry Huggins (a bilingual John Turturro). If you’re wondering what it’s like to create amidst death, though, My Mother will disappoint, as it does in many other respects. There is much great and good art based on personal experience, but Moretti seems too close to his subject to provide either meaningful introspection or a well-rounded narrative.
Where My Mother does shine is in the details of pre-grief. In one heartbreaking scene, an exhausted but determinedly polite Margherita searches for her mother Ada’s (Giulia Lazzarini) electricity bill when a utility salesman knocks on her door one morning. The hunt for that elusive slip of paper is a reminder of everything Margherita’s about to lose: her mother’s house, the organized existence within, and her affectionate-but-not-close relationship with the older woman — a Latin scholar who can’t help noticing that the sicker she gets, the stupider her nurses assume her to be. Margherita finally loses her composure in what turns out to be one of the last times she’s in her mother’s home. Later, the house is empty yet crowded, filled with forlorn boxes waiting to be dispatched as soon as Ada draws her final breath. Playing Margherita’s brother, Moretti himself appears as a quiet, dutiful presence, one whose devotion to their mother makes Margherita guilty for not doing more.
These melancholy scenes are interspersed with Margherita’s miserable struggles at work, where a boorish Hollywood star who might be on the verge of his own breakdown grinds production to a halt. After propositioning Margherita on the first night he meets her (though in his defense, it is improbable that a director would pick up an actor from the airport herself), he half-jokingly demands that the fake champagne bottles on set be replaced with real ones, as he can’t stand one more thing being fake in his life.
Margherita and Barry are supposed to mirror each other in their confrontations with unreality — she’s in denial about her mother’s death, while he apparently can’t escape the bullshit-factory aspect of the film industry — but the parallel doesn’t quite work, since Barry is too grotesquely narcissistic to take seriously. Turturro plays it too obnoxious even for this character, who’s also too incompetent to be believable as an in-demand star. He’s about as subtle as a blinking neon beer sign in a J.M.W. Turner landscape painting, and his storyline doesn’t offer much more than the revelation that Hollywood is full of phonies.
Equally botched is Margherita’s epiphany that she’s not the girlfriend, mother, or daughter she thought she was. The character feels so much like a blank audience surrogate that it comes as a surprise when she’s forced to confront something less-than-pleasant about herself; we’re as shocked as she is, but because she has, or is supposed to have, a personality. My Mother makes for a heartfelt farewell, but its sincerity can’t make up for its terminal flaws.