Bright Lights Film Journal

“What Remains When You Die”: Nanni Moretti Talks About My Mother (Mia Madre) (2015)

Nanni Moretti and Margherita Buy

Editor’s note: This is the second director interview by our correspondent Amir Ganjavie, this one conducted at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. The film discussed, My Mother, is being released in the U.S. on August 26, 2016, and we’re reposting Amir’s interview to direct readers to this worthy work.

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In his latest movie, My Mother (Mia  Madre), 62-year-old Nanni Moretti returns to one of his central preoccupations – how to deal with the loss of a loved one. His film The Son’s Room (2001), for example, explores the incomprehensible death of a child. But My Mother has a more universal appeal since it is about the death of a mother, a fear that can touch anyone. Moretti depicts a middle-aged female director in the process of shooting a movie while also dealing with her dying mother. Moretti’s approach is sweet and touching, resulting in one of his most tragic films that also has comic touches, thanks largely to John Turturro’s performance. Turturro demonstrates a deep understanding of Moretti’s cinema; his performance never destabilizes the mourning and reflective sensibility of the movie. My Mother was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Cahiers du Cinema called it the best movie of the year, and audiences and critics have expressed similar enthusiasm for Moretti’s subtle approach to this difficult theme. In the following interview, Moretti elaborates on what he was trying to achieve with My Mother. – Amir Ganjavie

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AMIR GANJAVIE: You actually start your film with a crane shot, from the point of view of the cop, and I think that viewpoint is crucial here. Why did you shoot it that way?

NANNI MORETTI: I should say that here I did not choose the police’s side; not at all. In that scene, I am making fun of the camera operator, who is told off by Margherita for shooting the beating too closely. It’s a movie within a movie; it’s a scene that appears to be real, but later the viewer discovers that it is a movie rather than reality. Then Margherita is berating the operator and accusing him of being sadistic. It’s a reflection about moviemaking, about how these scenes can be depicted.

Because you experienced the same issue in the recent past with the death of your mother, did you find working on this project more difficult than your other films?

Not much. At some moments during the process of writing in order to give more depth to the story and to add weight to it I looked at the notes I took during my mother’s illness. That was a very painful experience.

Aside from your notes, what other sources and materials did you use while writing the screenplay?

I had prepared some materials to read and watch for this movie, but because of the shortage of time, I couldn’t use them. I watched Woody Allen’s Another Woman, and I planned to watch Haneke’s Amour but couldn’t. I wanted to read Journal de deuil (Mourning Diary) by Roland Barthes, a diary that he wrote after his mother’s death. A friend suggested this book to me since she found it very helpful during the mourning process, but when I tried to read it I couldn’t because I found it to be very emotionally disturbing.

Giulia Lazzarini and Margherita Buy

Margherita demands that the actress say the dialogue, but at the same time she demands they be themselves, so there is a sort of contradiction here. It is something that you yourself do when acting in your films; you have an alter ego in some cases.

First of all, if I don’t act as my alter ego, then there is less room for confusion. If in a movie I am acting as my alter ego, the viewers may be confused and think that the ideas expressed in the dialogue are exactly my own ideas. On the other hand, from the beginning I never thought of playing the main role since I stopped doing this quite a while ago. In the past I liked to do it, but this is no longer the case. I had the idea that the main character would be a woman for a simple reason: she is a much better actor than me. The final point is much like what Margherita tells the actors – I don’t like those who completely annihilate their own personalities in order to portray movie characters.

But there is the impression that there is a lot of you in the film.

This movie should not be seen as my personal confession. This is not real life; it is composed of performances, frames, and choices. Having said this, you can see, for example, during the scene in which Margherita’s brother asks his sister to stop repeating her two hundred psychological patterns that it looks like I was talking to myself. I think that instead of measuring how autobiographical a work is, it is more important to evaluate the personal approach in relation to the story.

Why did you decide to cast John Turturro?

I decided to cast him because I found him very interesting. I like his acting style, which is very naturalistic. Furthermore, he knows a little bit of Italian, and we knew each other before. He has watched a couple of my movies and knows very well my cinematic taste. Finally, he is a film director. It is always easier to work with actors who have a good understanding of directing.

John Turturro

Your film also seems to reference Elio Petri’s Working Class Goes to Heaven and Fellini’s 8 1/2, though of course with a twist. For instance, the factory scenes and the protesters remind me of Petri. Although you reverse this by focusing on the capitalist here instead of the workers. Gian Maria Volonte, who played the main character in Petri’s film, is replaced here by John Turturro’s character. In the dream scene where Margherita walks along the cinema lineup, she sees her mother, and Giovanni also comes and talks to her about doing something new for once, about breaking the pattern that she has been repeating. It reminds me very much of 8 1/2: having a problem with creativity and not knowing what to do. You have replaced Fellini’s main character with Margherita, and so the masculine perspective has been displaced by her feminine touch. Can you comment on this?

For an Italian movie director, but also for an Italian cinemagoer, Fellini is part of the cultural background, so it’s possible for certain scenes or atmospheres that are reminiscent of his movies to spontaneously emerge in a movie. However, I did not mean to make an explicit reference to Fellini. I envisioned the lineup scene as a way to re-create an atmosphere of a past time when movies were screened in the same theatre for a long time. Those people were going to watch the Wings of Desire by Wenders; I wanted to revive the atmosphere of those times. As far as Petri, actually, my main intention was to depict Margherita’s movie as separate from her personal life. I did not mean to set up an endless game of mirrors between the movie and her life. I really did not want to go there. I wanted to depict Margherita’s doubts and uncertainties in her private life, her feeling of inadequacy in contrast to the solid structure and clear-cut theme of her movie.

The characters in your films are usually very challenged by their struggles against society. Why are you so interested in such characters?

Characters in my movies go through crises. Everybody in real life, and similarly movie characters, goes through crises. I am interested in describing those moments since they show one’s true character; truth emerges during a crisis. Margherita wants to describe reality through her movie, but she’s not sure that she will succeed.

Amnesia is a recurrent feature of your films and is the main theme of Palombella Rossa (Red Wood Pigeon, 1989). Amnesia appears again in My Mother, and there is so much stress on historical continuity here with the central question being about what might happen when the mother dies. It is a theme that sort of haunts you and returns you to an older time.

These are different matters. In Palombella Rossa the main theme was the forgetfulness of the Italian Left and even more of Italian society overall. Memory is not our particular strength in Italy. My Mother is different because it is about what is left of departed persons, what they pass on, their legacy. It is about the Latin language. It’s all about this. It is different from the amnesia in Palombella Rossa. It’s about what remains when you die.

And how does this movie differ from La Stanza del Figlio (The Son’s Room), in which you also addressed the theme of mourning?

I was reflecting on fear in La Stanza del Figlio, but in My Mother I paid particular attention to the death of one’s mother, which is an experience that many people share. This is a very important rite of passage in life, and I tried to tell it again without necessarily being too harsh about it.

Sometimes in your work it is difficult to differentiate between dreams and reality.

In fact, I am very much in favour of the moments when the audience cannot know easily whether they are seeing a piece of a dream or reality. It is more important in the case of this movie that they all happened simultaneously for Margherita’s character because of the critical state that she was in. Here the narrative mingles with Margherita’s various emotional states, and everything happens with the same urgency at the same time.

Buy and Turturro

The ending of the film shows the death of the mother, and this coincides with the ending of the movie that Margherita made. Why did you try to make connection between these two? Do you see Margherita’s movie as a failed project?

The movie that Margherita is shooting is not a failure. It is very sturdy and assertive, unlike Margherita’s life, which is confused and in a deep emotional state. The movie is very clear-cut with the business owners on one side and the workers on the other. I intended to create a discrepancy between the film that she made and the critical moment she is going through.

Margherita’s movie shows the struggle in the factory with lots of funny moments. Why did you use mocking images to portray this? Were you trying to say that in today’s contemporary society factory-based or working class movies are not possible and that only mockery can serve as a form of resistance?

Margherita’s movie is not meant to be funny. No, it’s something different. Funny things happen on Margherita’s movie set, but this is not the main point. The main point of her movie, which is actually about a very serious subject, is the workers’ struggle against the factory owners. Of course, it is possible to make a serious movie about capitalism. The problem is that even if Margherita is depicting a very clear-cut situation in the movie, she still has doubts and is actually not at all sure that she will succeed in comprehending the broader reality with its nuances and complexities. In fact, she says this to herself during the press conference, which is heard as an off-screen voice during the movie.

One of the scenes at the end of the movie shows John Turturro and the leader of the protesters negotiating and Margherita is centered in the frame as if her private life is more important than what these guys are doing. However, in your final scene, which I think is one of the greatest endings in the history of cinema, the mother says something about tomorrow. Is the mother “Italy”?

You seem to find politics behind every statement! Through the movie I have learned that following the release of a film, the movie is no longer fully yours. The audience sees it and changes it. You might not pay close attention to some aspects of the movie and the public realizes this and sheds a light upon them. You could regard the mother as a symbol of Italy if you really want to, but this is not what I meant! I’d rather regard my movie as a movie about human nature and human emotions. That’s the way I interpret my movie.

During the press conference for Margherita’s movie, a journalist asks her, “In such a delicate moment for society, do you think that your film will succeed in appealing to the country’s consciousness?” I want to ask you the same question.

The movie is not meant to appeal to the common consciousness of the country. I just want to communicate with movie viewers as individuals. It’s a movie about mankind, individual human beings. I am not speaking to an entire country but rather to each individual; those are the ones I care about.

Thank you for speaking with me, Mr. Moretti.

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Note: I would like to thank Mahmood Khoshchereh for his assistance with this interview.