It’s not fair to compare Nanni Morretti’s “Mia Madre” to Fellini’s “8 ½” despite both films dealing with a director’s struggle to finish a film while juggling relationships with actors, lovers, and family members. Fellini’s masterpiece sits securely in the pantheon, but “Mia Madre” has its own melancholy charm. Actor/director Morretti puts a woman at the center of his film and surrounds her with other women in the form of her difficult teenage daughter and her ailing mother. In addition to these demanding relationships, Margherita (Margherita Buy) also needs to handle an entitled American movie star played with delicious bravado by John Turturro as well as her recalcitrant boyfriend, who is acting in the film she is directing. It’s a tough life.
Moretti mixes the realistic details of moviemaking with Margherita’s dreams and memories, which makes the film confusing at first. Ultimately, “Mia Madre” is about loss and grief. Margherita is in charge on set (barely), but she cannot control her mother’s fate and she cannot make her daughter do what she wants. Her guilt over ignoring the people she loves and her disappointment in her work suffuses the film without making it ponderous. Buy gives her character sympathetic depth and Turturro brings humor and humanity to his performance, as he always does. It’s big and brash but never turns into a cartoon.
Another standout performance is Giulia Lazzarini as Ada, Margherita’s mother. A classics professor, she is beloved by her students and by her granddaughter. Moretti is supposed to have based the character on his own mother, who was also a classics teacher. A particularly poignant moment comes when Margherita recognizes that her mother had a full separate life, one that Margherita never bothered to investigate.
An entirely different woman dominates the new romantic thriller “Complete Unknown,” this one untethered to anyone or anyplace. Rachel Weisz plays the beautiful mystery woman Alice Manning who shows up at a birthday party as the guest of a co-worker of the host. We have already seen Alice changing work uniforms in different locations and researching the birthday boy online, so we know something is up. Sure enough, the man, Tom, recognizes her as Jenny, an old girlfriend who disappeared 20 years ago. Now Tom is a government bureaucrat married to a gorgeous jewelry designer, and he wants to know where Jenny has been and what she wants after so long.
The movie falls between genres: it isn’t really a thriller, although there is a lot of suspense generated about what Alice wants. It’s not entirely a romance, though there is a connection between Alice and Tom. It’s only partially a mystery. Put all this together and add a large serving of existential questioning, and you get an original tale of a young woman who escaped her predetermined life, choosing anonymity and transformation. As Tom, Michael Shannon is in an unusual role for him. He is not radiating menace or dread, but we feel his constrained depression. Here is a man who is being driven crazy by his life.
Director Joshua Marston uses his camera effectively to create an atmosphere of eerie uncertainty, but it’s Malcolm Jamieson who deserves a shout out for his fluid editing. There is a long scene about frog songs that doesn’t quite make sense, but is totally mesmerizing. Kathy Bates and Danny Glover appear as an elderly couple who have fun with lies in their own way. Marston seems interested in what it takes to leave, and what we give up when we do so. No answers supplied.
What’s on TV?
I just finished the HBO eight-episode mini-series “The Night Of,” and the finale was just as gripping as the rest of the show. This is one of the best things I’ve seen on television in the last few years. Writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian create so much tension that I was almost afraid to sit down and watch the individual episodes. But there is a lot more here than just suspense. As he did so effectively in “The Wire,” Price creates an institutional world for his characters. They are embedded in a network of relationships with people they work with, live with, see every day.
“The Night Of” follows the plight of a Muslim college student from Queens who is arrested for the murder of a young woman he picked up in his father’s cab. He is sent to Rikers to await trial. There he must learn how to survive in a violent world. The show follows the detective working the case, but it also presents a deep view of the system that the detectives, the lawyers, the prosecutors, and the defendants all exist within. Nothing is simple or clear cut; on the contrary, it’s all ambiguous. The performances are uniformly excellent, but for an example of great acting, watch John Turturro play the ambulance chaser John Stone. Brilliant and heartbreaking.
Another limited TV series I’ve enjoyed this summer is “BrainDead,” the latest venture from Robert and Michelle King, the creators of “The Good Wife.” A sharp political satire, the show has enough humor and whimsy to avoid being overly smug. The premise is zaniness itself: members of Congress are being infected by some alien power (they look like ants) that crawls into their ears and eats their brains. The symptoms are temperance, a lack of libido, and wildly extreme political positions. That neatly explains why our government is dysfunctional, and also provides a lot of fun investigative avenues for our heroine, Laurel Healy, winningly played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Tony Shalhoub is hilarious as a wily right-wing nutcase Senator. It reminds me a little of “Pushing Daisies” in tone, and is much more original than most network fare.