Film: 'Mia Madre' at the Chicago International Film Festival

The 51st Chicago International Film Festival opened last night with a screening of Italian director Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre. The film is a portrait of a family in a moment of difficulty. A film director, along with her brother and her daughter, are weathering the slow death of their matriarch. At the same time, they’re trying to manage the daily grind — the life-giving labor — of art-making, of studying, of cooking, of connecting. I don’t remember the last time I felt a movie death so acutely, especially such an inevitable death of such a (superficially) unremarkable character. In that sense, the portrait is earnest, profound, and direct.

But the movie is also relentlessly meta, explicitly and implicitly posing questions about the relationship between film and reality. The character of the film director, Margherita, wants her film to be more real, but is frustrated by the constant interruption by real life, and unsettled when boundaries blur. She gives her actors cryptic advice about letting their own selves come through alongside the characters they play, but no one knows what this advice means, and Margherita consistently experiences their actual human needs and failings as an inconvenience to her work. Margherita won’t acknowledge what’s happening to her mother, doesn’t get what’s going on in her daughter’s life, and can’t understand her own role in relation to any of this.

None of the characters are able to see very clearly what’s right in front of them, and we as an audience are often left guessing whose vision to trust, and wondering if what we’re witnessing are ‘real’ moments in the unfolding story, or dreams, or scenes from the film-within-a-film, or not-quite jokes from the fake-film’s lead actor. Ada, the ailing madre, calls us all out on our inability to see her, right there at the center of the film, as a full human being with history and interiority: "the older you are, the dumber they think you are, when actually it’s the opposite.” To further confuse things, this film’s actual director, Nanni Moretti, plays Margherita’s brother; Mia Madre is somewhat autobiographical, rooted in Moretti's own experience of his mother’s death—or so says IMDB.

At last night’s Chicago screening, Adler & Sullivan’s glittering Auditorium Theatre made such an impressive setting that we have to give credit to the film festival luminaries who braved the stage at the risk of appearing small and drab in contrast to their backdrop. The live component of the evening was marred by mic problems and missed cues, so when technical difficulties interrupted the screening of the feature film, it felt like just one more in a series of very awkward events. 

But I want to point out that this sort of interruption of art by reality, and our reaction to that interruption, is exactly what Moretti’s film so brilliantly invites us to examine. The description of Mia Madre on the Festival’s website tells us that "Real life and art clash violently in this moving personal drama about the heavy cost of artistic integrity.” Is this clash between real life and art not exactly what we got to see most perfectly in that dramatic moment when the projector failed? 

I don’t imagine I’m convincing anyone that there’s some greater level on which it's all part of the show. But that’s only because I’m not as good as Moretti.