The opening film of the 51st Chicago International Film Festival is Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre, an emotional mother-daughter-tale-slash-movie-making-farce hybrid. Mia Madre stars Margherita Buy as a successful film director working on an ambitious social message film involving factory worker’s rights. As she has to deal with an incompetent crew, uncooperative extras, and a hotshot American actor, her mother’s serious illness turns her life upside down.
Though Mia Madre is a fairly straightforward film split fairly equally between an A and B plot, as Margherita’s mother slips closer to death, the film becomes more fragmented. Dream sequences and flashbacks begin to interject the film, eventually giving the “real” scenes a fantastical quality. A scene where Margherita wakes up to her apartment covered in two inches of water, for example, is at first difficult to decipher its place in reality. For the dramatic flaws that Mia Madre has, this is the most intriguing aspect of the film. It presents, almost strictly through editing, a nice look into Margherita’s crumbling psyche.
Unfortunately, the mother-daughter plot doesn’t have enough emotional impact. This plot feels a bit stretched out in part because it is quite obvious where it will end up. There are scenes throughout the film where characters are surprised by the mother’s worsening health, which comes off confusing as to why they didn’t see this coming when the film telegraphing it so. Perhaps some people in this situation would be shocked no matter the signs, but it doesn’t quite work narratively, no matter how touching some of the individual scenes can be.
The quiet and sad scenes Margherita spends with her mother are broken up by the film production, where nothing seems to be going right, though in a much more lighthearted way. Margherita’s biggest obstacle is Barry Huggins, played exuberantly by John Turturro, an actor brought in as the villainous factory owner opposing strike. Barry is a bit of a prima donna, the stereotype of the entitled American actor, even though he can’t remember a single line or realistically pantomime driving a car.
Turturro is Mia Madre’s biggest bright spot, giving a wild performance as comic relief. He’s also excellent casting as Barry, as Turturro is recognized and respected but also known for playing a variety of rubes and wackos. It really isn’t established what level of actor Barry is, but it is easy to assume that he is probably less in demand than the enthusiastic Italian crew lets on. Though the film doesn’t explore Barry deeply, there is enough there for the character to be memorable and for Turturro to play in range.
The balance between the bleak drama and the raucous comedy is a tough bridge to gap. While individual scenes can work, they don’t quite fit snuggly together. Buy is in a particularly tough situation as the only actor in the film that has to work on both sides of the narrative. The actress is willing and able, but Mia Madre’s structure doesn’t do her any favors. There doesn’t feel like any through line for the character between the two environments – we see her perturbed while shooting the film, maybe especially so because of her situation at home, but not in a consistent arc. The film suffers similarly with its underdeveloped dramatic beats.
Chicago International Film Festival Showtimes:
Thursday, October 15, 5:30 pm (Opening Night Gala)