Deftly balancing comedy and drama, My Mother is a film that leaves audiences laughing hysterically in places, but drying their eyes by the conclusion. Primed for a miserable realist drama about a woman watching her elderly mother’s slow decline from pneumonia, My Mother frequently surprises the viewer with its perceptive prodding of the relationship between a determined female director and her annoying lead actor, played with relish by John Turturro. It could have been a real slog, but with expertly timed moments of extremely welcome levity, My Mother is instead a surprising treat.
Film director Margherita (Margherita Buy) is struggling with the endless stresses of making a movie, while also coping with the added heartache of looking after her dying mother. The film she is directing is about a factory full of workers being threatened by impending layoffs and her lead actor from America is causing her extra concern by fluffing his lines and acting erratically on set. Her personal life is a bit of a mess, with a relationship recently ended and a daughter off skiing with the girl’s father, Marguerite’s ex-husband. Confronted with the demands of working on the set, and the crushing inevitability of her mother’s illness, Margherita’s mind is torn between two places at once, leading her to re-evaluate her relationships.
Make no mistake, despite the title and an all round solid cast, My Mother is John Turturro’s movie. Before he shows up in the film, sleeping in an airport chair and waiting for Marguerite to pick him up, My Mother seems like it might be a little too melancholy to truly engage. However, the moment Turturro awakes and we are introduced to his enthusiastically animated Italian-American actor Barry Huggins, the film reveals its wild card. Whether regaling Margherita with stories of the time he worked with Kubrick, convincing his director to direct him in a gangster film he has mapped out in his impulsive imagination, or having a tantrum on set over his itchy moustache, Huggins is like a Tasmanian Devil whipping through the movie. Stealing every scene he’s in, Huggins is a wonderfully comic creation brought to vivid life by Turturro.
However, there is more to the film than Turturro’s one man laugh dispenser. Writer and director Nanni Moretti never lets the audience forget that Huggins’ trickiness on set is having a negative impact on the already distracted Margherita’s mental state. Constantly cutting back and forth between the hospital where Margherita and her brother look after their mother, and the set where Margherita seems to be letting her control over the production slip, it is easy to grasp the strain she feels. Margherita Buy does a superb job at conveying the difficulty she is experiencing in making tough decisions on the set, while trying not to dwell on her mother’s worsening situation.
Moretti uses slightly jarring flashbacks that are cut into the drama like memories that spring to Margherita’s mind uninvited. The technique takes a little getting used to but ultimately invests the backstory with added poignancy. Moretti makes little attempt to be flashy in his direction but the slightly jumbled chronology and occasionally attention-grabbing images aid the story’s momentum. As the film progresses, there is an almost nightmarish quality to some moments, as Margherita lets her memories and fears cloud her vision. For a slow moving story about the gradual decline of an elderly lady, the pace rarely drags, largely due to its perfectly judged moments of comedy featuring Turturro on irresistible form.
Margherita’s relationship with her daughter is the weakest of the subplots, adding very little to the overall drama but when the characters are this believably drawn, it’s understandable why it wasn’t excised. It’s just a shame there wasn’t room for a little more Barry Huggins as the scenes that take place on Margherita’s film set really take My Mother up a notch.
That said, Giulia Lazzarini does a fantastic job as the mother slowly finding her brain functions decreasing and the film’s final scenes pack an emotional punch. While My Mother is ultimately a heartfelt family drama, it is Moretti’s observations on tough directors and the annoying actors they have to work with that really make this one to watch.
About the Author
Peter Turner Senior Reporter & Critic for Tastic Film Magazine.