We first see Margherita (Margherita Buy), the director of the film-within-the-film, in the midst of shooting a scene of a workers’ protest being broken up by cops. As she argues with her crew, it’s clear that this fictional filmmaker is cut from very much the same cloth as Moretti himself: She scolds a cameraman for closing in too much on the blows of a cop hitting a protester; when he responds that he zoomed because he wanted the audience to “get into” the scene, she asks if the cameraman “wants to be the cop or the worker.” Perspective matters, and how you frame a shot says a lot about how you see the world. (As Bernardo Bertolucci once put it, it’s not so much about making political movies, but about making movies politically.) It isn’t by chance that Moretti cuts from this scene to a close-up of a nurse rubbing Margherita’s sick mother’s hands with medication. That’s the kind of detail a true humanist would focus on.
Margherita and her brother Giovanni (played by Moretti himself) are in the midst of dealing with their mother’s failing heart. A respected teacher and scholar of Latin, mom’s lucidity varies. While Giovanni has taken time off from his job — we sense that he’s not exactly a workaholic to begin with — Margherita has plunged fully into hers. Her film is a big-budget political drama starring big-name American actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro), who turns out to be both an egomaniac and an incompetent. Forced to act in Italian, he can’t remember his lines, throws petulant hissy fits and can’t stop talking about the time he worked for — and was fired by — Stanley Kubrick. Turturro is hilarious as Barry, but somehow resists caricature. We all know he can go broad; the Coen Brothers have proven that over and over again. But Barry’s preening self-regard and its counterpart, abject self-loathing, come across as rooted in vulnerability, inadequacy, alienation. You feel bad for this lonely guy, even as you laugh at him.
The film settles into an uneasy dance between these competing energies: the gathering melancholy of Margherita’s scenes with her mother and the shenanigans on set, where Barry finds new ways to ruin each scene. Moretti also intersperses brief dream sequences in which Margherita reassesses figures and events from her life. These latter moments — which can be hit or miss — hint at the key question on Moretti’s mind, which concern how we value work and how life interferes with it. Looking over her mother’s reams of scholarship, the volumes of Tacitus and Lucretius, Margherita exclaims, “Where will all these books go — all that work?”
The question is both practical and existential: What use is all this effort and all this stuff if in the end all we’re going to do is decay and disintegrate? She could be asking this of her own work as well. (And of course, it’s a perfectly Moretti-esque bit of framing that the movie she’s making is all about placing a proper value on labor.) Margherita's question hangs in the air: It speaks to the film’s constantly shifting tone, between the chaos of the set and the sad stasis of the hospital.
All that’s conceptually interesting — at least, when Moretti doesn’t fall into the clichéd trap of worrying over whether Margherita has spent enough time with her loved ones while pursuing cinematic glory. But Mia Madre’s heart lies in the little details that Moretti always finds — those moments that tell you the filmmaker understands these people and has, in some way, lived their story. Margherita has a dream that her mother has died, then wakes up to find herself in mom’s hospital room, with her still alive, albeit frail; Margherita's momentary relief is heartbreaking.
Similarly, a scene in which Margherita nearly has a nervous breakdown over her inability to find a meaningless electric bill has the ring of truth to it — Moretti tempers the melodrama by wedding it to a completely irrelevant task. That authenticity extends, as you might expect, to the scenes on set as well — to the strange way that a cloud of assistants will silently follow a director around, to the leeway given to a big star even when he’s at his most irrational, to the way every crew member always seems to think he can do the director’s job better than she can. Mia Madre may be a delicate film, but don’t be surprised if, in the end, the cumulative power of its humanity obliterates you.