Why does the burden of balancing work, family and sanity almost always ends up on the shoulders of women? Hints can be gathered in “Mia Madre,” winner of the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
The film’s female protagonist, Margherita (Margherita Buy), is a single mother and director who is unraveling before our eyes. She has just gone through a breakup, her teenage daughter is impossible to talk to and her mother is dying on a hospital bed. Though she is attractive, strong-willed and hard-working, none of Margherita’s assets seem to be helping her.
Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” could be described as a companion piece to the director’s 2001 film “The Son’s Room,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. In that earlier movie the story focuses on a grieving father (played by Moretti) whose teenage son suddenly dies in a diving accident. The father loses his grip on reality and all but abandons his job as a therapist.
In “Mia Madre,” Moretti again appears, this time as Margherita’s brother, Giovanni, who leaves his job because he can’t deal with the passing of his mother. Margherita, on the other hand, forges ahead with her work, deals with her daughter and visits her mother, Ada (Giulia Lazarini), in the hospital. Margherita’s fatigue is palpable — even the few hours of sleep she gets at night are haunted by confusing dreams.
Watching “Mia Madre,” the urge to get into feminist-rant mode becomes irresistible, mainly because the story seems to cut Margherita no breaks, and the men around her are afforded the luxury of rest and reflection, or they’re just allowed to be themselves. “I don’t understand a thing anymore,” says a harried and tearful Margherita at one point.
Both her work (a movie about factory lay offs and social injustice) and her life no longer seem relevant. She also resents the fact that Giovanni can be OK with walking away from his job to ease his own stress. Everyone — from crew members to her own mother — tells Margherita she’s working too hard, but to a woman like her, those words only make her work harder and go further into denial about Ada’s passing.
Enter John Turturro as Barry Huggins, a has-been Hollywood actor who arrives from the U.S. to star in Margherita’s movie. From the get-go, he drives her crazy. He won’t remember his lines and throws one tantrum after another. Turturro delivers one of the finest performances of his career here. He does everything to make you loathe Barry’s guts, but you wind up loving him anyway. Barry has charm and charisma to spare while, unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Margherita, who spends most of the story on the verge of a mental meltdown.
Like “The Son’s Room,” Moretti never stoops to phony conclusions. A thin ray of hope shines on a mountain of sadness and regret, but that’s about it in terms of positive notes. Moretti’s message is the same as before: When a loved one dies you’re not supposed to feel OK about it or find any quick resolutions. In this sense, Margherita is a perfect heroine: prickly, miserable, totally unglamorous and terribly tired. She’s a real human being in pain, perhaps the only one here among a horde of credible and competent actors.
In the end, Buy’s performance trumps anything Turturro does, for all his impeccable Italian and splashy outbursts alternating with flirtatious smiles. It’s almost as though he is playing for the house. You get the sense that when all this is over, he’ll stroll out unscathed to the next role. But Buy is hard to separate from Margherita. It’s the kind of role that leaves bruises on the mind, for both the viewer and actress.