Nanni Moretti’s mother died in 2010, just as the Italian director was wrapping up work on his film “We Have a Pope.” That experience of loss, if not its precise circumstances, informs his follow-up, the semi-autobiographical “Mia Madre,” which centers on a female stand-in for Moretti.
Margherita (Margherita Buy), also a filmmaker, is just getting going on a film about the struggle between striking workers and the boorish head of their factory (John Turturro, broadly caricaturing a foolish American movie star), when she and her brother, Giovanni (played by Moretti), must suddenly cope with the unexpected hospitalization of their mother (Giulia Lazzarini) and her rapid decline in health.
It’s a formula for pathos, yet Moretti mostly avoids weepy melodrama, choosing instead to focus on a side meditation about the slippery nature of reality, which he explores by playing around with Margherita’s dreams and memories, her mother’s dementia and the contrast between Turturro’s Barry Huggins and the character he plays in the film-within-a-film.
Although the screenplay (written by Moretti with his “Pope” collaborator Francesco Piccolo and Valia Santella of “Honey”) keeps the audience nicely off balance — a metaphor, perhaps, for the dissociative state brought on by extreme grief — Moretti’s farcical subplot about Huggins’ ineptitude is more of an annoyance than a welcome counterbalance to sentimentality.
It feels like pre-emptive comic relief, in other words, where none is needed.
The good news is that Buy, who worked with Moretti on “Pope” and other films, is almost mesmerizing enough that none of this matters. Her expressive face moves from the bemused consternation of an artist who has lost her professional bearings to the sadness of a daughter about to lose her mother, finding room in between for something that feels like sibling jealousy.
(Giovanni is the more attentive caregiver, as it turns out. Considering that the more dutiful child is played by Moretti — but that Margherita is the more human character — it’s unclear to what degree each of these roles should be seen as self-serving or a form of artistic atonement.)
But as considerable as her gifts may be, Buy is ultimately unable to hold “Mia Madre” together. As a movie, it’s not nearly as bad as the one Barry Huggins is starring in, but “Mia Madre” is still, on the whole, less than the sum of its parts.
(At the Tivoli.)
Rated R. Time: 1:46.
In Italian with subtitles.