Italian dramatic-comedy Mia Madre finds very little humor in the serious topic of caring for the elderly, and maybe that’s a good thing.
Mia Madre is a little misleading, at least from a marketing point of view. The poster features the lead actress, flanked on both side with what seems to be two different suitors. One might assume that it’s a romantic comedy, since structurally it follows the same design behind other famous romantic comedies’ posters (Love Actually, or any Matthew McConaughey film from the mid-2000s). Those looking for anything like that would be better off staying home, as what the film actually consists of is an emotional, tone-sensitive drama on the difficulties of caring for an elderly family member.
Mia Madre, currently playing at The Charles Theatre, worked up a fervor at the latest edition of the Cannes Film Festival, with critics lauding it over the performances of John Turturro and decorated lead actress Margherita Buy. The film competed for but ultimately the battle for the festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or.
Buy stars as a film director named Margherita, who is helming a new film about a labor dispute. In the midst of the film’s production, multiple things impede Margherita’s efforts, including the appearance of Barry (Turturro), an Italian-American actor who seems to forget his lines as often as he drinks.
Margherita’s home life is defined by her constant trips to help her ailing mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini). Ada’s health deteriorates throughout the film, with flashes back to the days before her illness. The film paints a clear contrast between the way that Magherita views her mother now that she’s ill as compared to the annoyance and impatience she treats her with prior to the illness.
The film’s cinematography is rather simple, but as a character-driven drama, that doesn’t detract from the experience. The film utilizes locales that are quaint and small-town-ish, as well as a few scenes in more urban areas that are beautiful.
In terms of acting, John Turturro carries the scenes that he’s in. The charisma that he has shown throughout his other films shines through here. As Barry, he manages to be magnetic enough to maintain a certain amount of likeability in the face of his annoying traits. A majority of the film’s comedy comes from Barry’s quirks and his habit of forgetting lines.
Buy’s performance is strong as well. She shows many different emotions in her performance here as a daughter trying to completely reconnect with her mother. The moments in which she breaks down from stress feel authentic, and the moments in which she clashes with her own adolescent daughter (over the daughter’s need to learn the classics, or latin, since the mother was a classics teacher). All of these moments feel authentic and at certain moments, the film has a certain voyeuristic quality that is vacant in many dramas.
This voyeuristic quality makes it feel as if the more intimate moments are that much more private. It makes it feel as if you as the viewer are seeing something you shouldn’t, and that frankly adds to the overall quality of the film.
Unfortunately, there are numerous problems with the film’s execution. The dialogue at times feel trite, and takes away from the aforementioned authentic feeling. Characters have conversations that seemingly go nowhere. Another problem is the way that the passing of time is shown in the film has numerous pacing problems. Some people may think the way that film seamlessly transitions from past to present is a plus, but for this reviewer, it chopped up the pace, hurting the overall film. There are moments when Ada and Margherita interact, only for later dialogue to confirm that these moments were in the past, which would’ve been helpful information to have prior to dialogue notes.
Yet, at times that feeling of not knowing exactly when things are happening is a plus. There are moments when a character may be dreaming and the only signs of that are from small exchanges of dialogue.
Overall, Mia Madre, struck a fuse at Cannes, with some hailing it as a tour de force, and others chocking it up as melodramatic. I fall somewhere in the middle of those two camps, since the film delivered in terms of emotion but fell short at times with characters.