“You don’t know how you hurt the ones you love”
Life is a struggle right now for Margherita (Margherita Buy), an exacting film director who’s discovered she’s lost her grip on reality. She’s an artist with vision that seeks perfection in everyone, including herself. Do the work and good things happen. Figure out the problem and fix it. If the driver meant to pick up the star of her new movie from the airport can’t do it, she’ll get in her car and retrieve him herself because she solves problems. She may guarantee you know she’s the one solving it in the process, harried in her reactions to shoulder the responsibility while pushing others away through frustration. But she gets it done. So why then can’t she help her ailing mother? When did death become that ordeal’s answer?
Writer/director Nanni Moretti‘s Mia Madre depicts Margherita’s journey through the landscape of her identity. The events he throws at her are meant to open her up to look within and see where she has gone wrong. She’s hardly a bad person; she’s merely difficult in her demandingly know-it-all way. She wants to steer those she cares about rather than watch them drive. Her daughter Livia (Beatrice Mancini) is falling behind in school? Study harder—that’s the quick solution when you cannot see the real problem stems from a broken heart. She feels as though her and boyfriend Vittorio (Enrico Ianniello) are growing apart, believing that he’s flirting with his costar on set? Break it off without a conversation. “You know it’s not working.” But does he?
There’s no give and take—there never was. Flashbacks to sad memories like Margherita telling her mother (Giulia Lazzarini‘s Ada) she can’t drive anymore with a rash display devoid of sympathy proves it. Dreams do too, strangers playing out scenes from her life as though it were a movie she directed without a shred of outside collaboration. She needs this sense of control, though. It grounds her in a way that being accessible and empathetic like her mother never could. But as she watches Ada’s revered woman fade away and witnesses the steady stream of well-wishers and former students that held her as a surrogate mother, Margherita’s own insular life comes into blindly raw focus. Maybe this isn’t the way. Maybe it’s time to let go a little.
Moretti plays the one steadying hand in her life: her brother Giovanni. He too is at a crossroads, but his occurs out of the limelight. He deals with the pain of their mother’s illness on the inside and shows only strength to the world. Suddenly Giovanni has usurped her as director of Ada’s final days by smuggling in food, holding her hand at all hours, and being the sounding board for Margherita’s anxious inability to understand the medical issues cannot be reversed. She has become an actor in her mother’s story, one that falters and breaks down in the face of small defeats (her food smuggling paling in comparison to Giovanni’s) and large (standing water throughout her apartment). She’s lost the confidence that defined her. She’s lost authority.
So she channels her frustrations on-set with the larger-than-life geniality of star Barry Huggins (John Turturro) and his massive ego pretending as though everything’s amazing until it isn’t. His character in Margherita’s film is one of an intruder, the face of a company takeover where the employees have gone on strike. In her life she is that role, desperate to see her mother’s illness turn around so she may return home. They’re both in a situation that warrants patience and understanding, but they cannot help trying to force their desires instead of adjusting them to fit. And as Mia Madre progresses, Margherita stops being able to discern where she is and whom she’s with at any given moment. For us it’s past and present blurring together as one.
She starts to break down emotionally on-set with odd thoughts about dealing with Ada’s books before yelling “Action.” She starts dictating off-set, becoming a director in Livia’s life rather than mother. She becomes complacent with the media, spouting off canned responses knowing there are more important things to handle despite escaping them to remain with her film. It’s heartbreaking to see her epiphany, that realization of what she’s missed and how many failed relationships might have been her fault. But it’s uplifting to watch her subtle transformation into the person she wishes to become. Margherita took her mother for granted while so many strangers didn’t. Only now is she accepting this truth with the hope it’s not too late to stop doing the same with those still here.
The drama’s authentic and characterizations powerful. I think Giovanni’s life is glossed over a bit, something I wouldn’t mention if not for the fact that we’re shown one scene with him and his boss without Margherita. I’m not sure what the brief moment adds besides giving us a reason to want more and therefore be disappointed when it doesn’t arrive. Otherwise he’s a perfect contrast to Margherita as what she needs now with the world crumbling around her. Turturro is great as the loud Barry too, instilling some comedy and personality to push his director to the edge of her patience. He’s a lightning rod of sorts that helps keep her once secure world of work off-balance enough so the internal worries and fears can officially take over.
Buy is the star, though, carrying the film’s weight with poise. We see her react to the past, present, and imaginary—each sphere of existence delivering something new to learn from and combat as she does on the job. We feel her complete dismantling when with her mother, attempting to remain strong despite finding it more and more difficult each day. Lazzarini for her part is unforgettable too. She shines with a brightness that lightens any mood, even when unable to talk and unwilling to let anyone see her. The unwavering love Ada provides regardless of Margherita remembering moments where she didn’t reciprocate shows the meaning of family and depth of emotion beyond a mind’s drive for perfection. Imperfection is quite often enough. It might even be best.
 Nanni Moretti and Margherita Buy in MIA MADRE. Courtesy of Music Box Films.
 John Turturro in MIA MADRE. Courtesy of Music Box Films.
 Giulia Lazzarini and Margherita Buy in MIA MADRE. Courtesy of Music Box Films.