Italian writer-director Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre (My Mother) is about an everyday drama in which nearly everyone eventually participates: the death of a parent. It begins not in a hospital but in the streets, where striking factory workers clash with police. It looks real enough, until the director yells, "cut!"
The ability to interlace reality and fantasy is one of cinema's strengths, and at times Mia Madre is as bewitchingly surreal as 8 1/2, Fellini's stream-of-consciousness classic. But Moretti's movie is less swaggering and more tender.
The director who yells "cut!" is Margherita (Margherita Buy), whose speciality is the sort of social-realist picture few filmmakers attempt anymore. Certainly not Moretti, whose political commentary is typically leavened with whimsy and introspection. Perhaps he assigned the director's gig to the fictional Margherita to temper Mia Madre's autobiographical origins. It was inspired by the loss of his own mother while he was making 2011's Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope), a wry comedy that begins with the death of a pope.
Moretti, who usually appears in his films, shows up here as Giovanni, Margherita's brother. He's always at the hospital when she comes to visit their mother, Ada (Guilia Lazzarini). It takes Margherita a while to realize that Giovanni has taken a leave of absence from work so he can be there full-time.
Margherita may be just as devoted, but she's in the middle of shooting, and has made the mistake of casting in the central role a temperamental American actor, Barry (John Turturro). Barry is the sort of ham who overacts even when the only role he's playing is that of visiting movie star.
Still, there's a sense that Margherita wouldn't be fully involved even without the pressure of the movie. She, for example, worries about her teenage daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini), yet Livia is not primarily her mother's responsibility. The girl lives with her father — one of several men, it seems, that Margherita has loved and left.
The connections between characters and events are manifold without being forced. Former students arrive to say that Ada was a mother figure, while the not especially maternal Margherita must coddle Barry so she can finish her movie. Livia is struggling with Latin; Ada was a Latin teacher. And that language represents a declining tradition, much as the volumes of Livy and Cicero in Ada's soon-to-be-empty apartment stand for a full but finished life.
The story is regularly interrupted by reveries and recollections. Whether awake or asleep, Margherita looks for the mother she remembers, but also for herself. In one scene, she tries to find the end of an apparently endless line to enter a cinema. She walks so far into her memories that she eventually encounters her younger self.
Such moments give the whole movie a dreamlike quality, even when depicting mundane events. Scenes may occur in reality, on the set, or in Margherita's mind, and it's not immediately clear where she — or the viewer — is.
This intricacy is probably why Moretti decided to include the straightforwardly buffoonish Barry, who keeps bungling his lines as he slides from Italian to English. But both the character and Turturro's performance are distracting, Moretti's only miscalculation aside from a soundtrack that features such over-obvious choices as Arvo Part and Leonard Cohen.
While a few satirical movie-biz moments click, Mia Madre is most poignant when it finds a tone much like Moretti's 2001 La Stanza del Figlio (The Son's Room). Both movies are gently bewildered meanders through denial, regret, and the beginnings of acceptance.