Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them. Episode 20: Italy, June 2015.
Up until this year, I’d probably spent more time in cinemas watching Italian movies than I’d ever spent in Italy itself. To be precise, I was there for four days back in 2007: two in Milan and another two in Venice. Inevitably, The Belated Birthday Girl and I wanted to see a local film while we were there, and we ended up at a massively unmemorable musical comedy called Liscio. (I can’t find a trailer for it online, so you’ll just have to watch the whole damn thing.)
It brought home to me something that’s become a subtext of these MMC pieces. You’re aware of a nation’s cinema from the high-end examples of it that make it to festivals or, God forbid, actual distribution in the UK. But under that, there’s a whole archeological layer of films that might as well be labelled For Domestic Consumption Only. The gap between those can be quite wide. And when you’re dealing with a nation like Italy, whose high-end cinema has historically been thought of as amongst the finest in the world, then that gap can seem even wider.
So on our recent trip back – a two week whizz around Bologna, Naples and Florence, and I’ll let the regular readers of my blog try to spot the link between two of those – we played it safe for our first trip to the flicks. And for a UK audience, Nanni Moretti has been a safe pair of hands since his international breakthrough with Dear Diary in 1993, with every feature he’s subsequently directed getting a London Film Festival screening and a British theatrical release. It would be a major shock if Mia Madre didn’t get the same treatment, particularly given its warm reception at Cannes earlier this year.
I always like to try to go into these films as cold as possible, but it was hard to avoid one major point in any Cannes reporting on Mia Madre: Moretti’s mother died a few years ago, and the film was inspired by that loss. Having said that, we know that Moretti likes to get autobiographical, but isn’t interested in big showy displays of emotion, so I was curious to see how he’d square that circle. In the end, he uses a very simple device: it’s still the story of a film director’s mother dying, but the director in this case is female and called Margherita (Margherita Buy). Moretti, meanwhile, sneakily casts himself in the role of her brother Giovanni, which means it’s still a film about his mum dying but most of the pressure’s taken off him.
So rather than making this film a teary melodrama about the slow physical decline of an old lady, Moretti makes it about the psychological impact this has on Margherita. Because as her mother Ada (Guilia Lazzarini) gets worse and worse, Margherita has a film to make, which is obviously increasing her stress levels even more. On top of all the usual administrative problems she has to deal with, the biggest one is her star – American actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro), who’s an egomaniac with a wobbly grasp of the Italian language and an even wobblier grasp of the concept of personal boundaries.
Huggins’ scenes are played in a natural-sounding pileup of English and Italian dialogue, which – aside from being very useful for me – leads to some terrific gags, as his interpreter has to give Margherita deadpan Italian translations of outbursts like “your script is shit”. Curiously, it’s Huggins’ scenes that were the hardest for me to grasp – on several occasions it looks like his behaviour has wrecked the production completely, and yet a couple of scenes later everyone’s working together again as if nothing has happened. It may be symbolic of something: at the very least, of Moretti’s desire to find the good parts of all his characters.
It’s an indication of Moretti’s fine control of tone that Turturro is just irritating enough without being an utterly irredeemable knob: it’s an approach that pays off in a glorious sequence showing the myriad ways in which a simple driving shot can be ruined. Similarly, his narrative structure is just tricksy enough, with the right number of flashbacks and dream sequences to keep you as disoriented as Margherita. He seems to more or less avoid undue sentimentality till close to the end – in particular, if I read it right, there’s a dark twist when we discover what eventually pushes her into a breakdown. But whether he completely avoids it or not will be hard to say until I’ve seen a subtitled copy of the film. I shouldn’t imagine that will take too long.
Moretti was one of several of the Italian big hitters with a film at Cannes this year – alongside him were Paolo Sorrentino (with Youth) and Matteo Garrone (with Tale Of Tales). Both movies were still running theatrically while we were in Italy, but both of them are in English so I can’t really cover them here. (Mind you, this being a country where English language films are all routinely dubbed into Italian, God knows what the soundtracks were like.) But who needs all this prestige Oscarbait in an article like this? You want junk and empty calories, I know you do. And to be fair, Torno Indietro e Cambio Vita is pretty good as empty calories go.
Directed by Carlo Vanzina, it’s the story of Marco (Raoul Bova), who’s got a pretty good life: still friends with his best pal from school Claudio (Ricky Memphis), married to his teenage sweetheart Giulia (Giulia Michelini), holding down a big job at a company that gets the largest product placement acknowledgement in the credits. But his world starts to come apart when Giulia announces that she’s had enough of him and chucks him out of their house. His work starts to suffer as a result. At his lowest ebb – and I need you to watch the following video at this point –
– as I was saying, at his lowest ebb Marco is suddenly hit by a speeding car and hurled back in time 25 years. To us, he looks like the same guy: to everyone else, he’s the 18 year old they’ve always known, they’re just not aware that he’s now got 25 years of pre-emptive hindsight under his belt. And given this chance to do it all again, he makes this decision: when the time comes for his first meeting with his future wife, he’s going to put her off so that his 2015 dumping never happens.
We’ve seen Life On Mars and all those other stories, so we know how this works: Marco’s probably in a hospital bed somewhere, imagining this scenario while in a coma. Except he isn’t. We know this because Claudio is in the same car accident as Marco, and goes back to 1990 with him. He’s a bit more successful in dealing with some aspects of the time jump, notably having the confidence to deal with the bullies who tormented him at school. He’s less successful when he tries to sort out his alcoholic mother, though.
So, the only conclusion we can draw from this is that being hit by a car actually makes you travel in time, which is a discovery that’s presumably been made since I took my physics degree in the eighties. (It was all flux capacitors in my day.) Get over that logical hurdle, and this is actually quite a jolly romp for the most part. There are visual gags aplenty from Marco trying to carry on an adult life while still appearing to the rest of the world as a teenager: there are presumably verbal gags resulting from his 2015 knowledge coming up hard against 1990 ignorance, but inevitably those are less easy to decipher. As this is a romcom, inevitably his plans to stop his wife falling in love with him are constantly thwarted: though it’s hard to tell without dialogue whether it’s simple mistakes on his part that keep bringing them together, or whether we’re meant to assume that Fate is at work.
Still, you know that at some point a reset button will have to be pressed: the key questions are, when will it happen, and what will its result be. A resolution is eventually found, and it’s one that’s rather ingenious while being at the same time queasily misogynistic. The more time you spend working out the implications afterwards, the dodgier it gets: though top marks to The Belated Birthday Girl for spotting that an annoying teenage boy whom we encounter near the start has, by the end, effectively undergone a Terminator-style retroactive abortion without anyone noticing. I’m not sure how cynical we’re meant to find the ending, but the answer is probably “not as much as we did.”
And in case you’re wondering about that video up there: we saw Torno Indietro at the Cinema Modernissimo in Naples. Unlike any other cinema we encountered in Italy, they do the old European trick of inserting an artificial interval at the midpoint of the film. But unlike, say, Holland, where they just bring the lights up for five minutes so you can nip out for a fag, here they brought the lights up and started showing a music video on the screen. So 45 minutes into this light comedy, we suddenly get a short interlude in which a psychopathic woman kidnaps a singer and a rapper and puts them into a Saw-style death machine. And then it’s straight back into the feature again. You thought that video was disruptive in the middle of a review? You should try it in the middle of a romcom…