Film as a Social Encounter
Nanni Morettis films pack a punch but can seem like cinematic flyweights. The camerawork is often predictable, the non-diegetic music occasionally sentimental, and the acting sometimes telegraphed. Yet by the end of the film – whether it is The Sons Room, We Have a Pope or Mia Madre here – the director offers a surprising uppercut that can emotionally floor you. Many a film can get to our emotions, and there are plenty devices that can lead to this feeling, but if Moretti is a filmmaker who seems of value, it rests in our belief that the obviousness of his style is not quite the same thing as registering an obviousness of affect. Perhaps a little like Mike Leigh or Robert Guediguian, he achieves an honest (as opposed to dishonest) sentiment.
Now of course an honest sentiment sounds like a quote from a film poster rather than an analytic probe, but if we can differentiate between the honest and dishonest sentiment as we are choosing to define it, perhaps we can understand an aspect of Morettis cinema that is both obvious in its technique, but surprising in its capacity for feeling. We can think of a couple of remarks Moretti makes about Mia Madre in Bright Lights Film Journal. In the first, he talks about the opening strike scene in the film. “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.” Moretti adds, “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.” He also says “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.” What seems evident is, on the one hand, an ethics of representation and on the other the notion that ones practise is informed by ones experiences. We are reminded again of Guediguian and Leigh. Guediguian would for a long time insist on shooting all his films in his hometown of Marseille and also believed in filming the areas sensitively. “There is something very violent about bringing in all this sophisticated technology, using a tool that at todays prices costs $5,000 per day in a place where people are on the breadline”. (Projections 9) Leigh would often bring in details from his life that he feels will make a moment authentic. Speaking of a scene in Naked where a character tells the drifting Johnny “dont waste your life”, and that it related to a moment in his own, Leigh added “my films are full of such personal things.” (Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh)
Clearly the autobiographical is most pronounced in Morettis Dear Diary, taking a central role in a film that might pass for a documentary as he explores his fascination with Flashdances Jennifer Beals, and his preoccupation with thelymphatic cancer that is attacking his body. But the question isnt whether filmmakers draw on their personal life or film their local milieu, but chiefly whether the tone possesses the personal. This can manifest itself ethically, biographically or environmentally as the filmmaker explores consistently a given milieu: Guedigiuan in Marseille, the Dardennes around Liege, Pedro Costa the outskirts of Lisbon. Whether the filmmakers are innovative in the form (Costa and the Dardennes), or more conventional (Guediguian, Leigh), there is a truth in the exploration that makes the apparent obviousness in the style in Leigh, Guediguian and Morreti contained by something enquiring in the material.
Let us think first of Buys character, Margherita, a harassed filmmaker who has recently split up with her actor boyfriend, and has a teenage daughter with her ex-husband. Before the end of the film we will recognize her as a little self-absorbed, egotistical and selfish, yet these words, while unhappily applied to her by the ex she has spurned, cannot quite contain her character even if there would seem to be nothing in what he says that isnt true. When she asks her brother Giovanni (Moretti) if the exs comments are fair, he offers sympathy as he see she is hurt but doesnt contradict the claims. Mia Madre is of course yet another film about an over-strained filmmaker trying to make a movie (8 ½, Day for Night, The Stuntsman, Morettis own Aprile) but it earns its place in august company not because it is a about a woman director for a change, but about a director caught in the flux of so many contrary claims. Margheritas ex is still in love, her mother is dying, her brother is in crisis and fed up with his job, and her daughter has not been taking everything too well. When she meets up with her ex and starts to look piqued, he says that she isnt thinking so much of her daughters pain over a recent break up; more that she is annoyed with herself for not noticing it as the daughter speaks to her grandmother. Vittorio (Enrico Ianniello) tells her that people prefer her in small doses; that she doesnt see the things around her. He is, of course, speaking from a place of his own pain but he isnt shown to be wrong, and when he asks if she has been thinking at all about them as a couple, about what happened and the break-up, she replies that she has been making a film – as if this allows her to forget about other concerns. It is the very thing Moretti refuses to do, suggesting an ongoing world around the production that is at least as important as the film being made. Morettis film more than most suggests cinema fits into a world as readily as it creates one, and this is one of not so much nuanced feeling as one of breadth.
It is variation on Renoirs notion that everybody has their reasons couched as everyone has their feelings. It gives Morettis film a tenderness Truffauts Day for Night can suggest in moments, but that permeates the Italian directors film to the point that the production itself ends up less important than the world out of which it comes. This is the ethics we opened on, and Moretti suggests their importance in the breadth of feeling he generates. The film is baggy in its focus as it attends to the emotional reasoning of its characters. Vittorio has almost no role to play as an actor within the film but is a figure of some importance in his own emotional reality, and hence in the film Moretti makes rather than the one Buy directs. Even John Torturro as the big American actor Barry Huggins who comes over to work on the production is given emotional heft outside the role and comic relief or an absurd presence during the filming. In one scene he cant remember his lines as he starts to dismiss the script and yells at everyone that the “dialogue is shit; the film is shit”, before telling Margherita after she tells him he cant remember a single line that he has been acting for thirty years and been in a hundred and five films. In an earlier moment there is a dialogue scene in the car and as he is expected to drive, stay in character and accept that his vision is limited because of the cameras blocking much of his view. He again loses the plot while struggling to remember his lines. He has clearly been hired as a larger than life personality, a bombastic boss who refuses the workers better rights, but who seems much more interested in the nightlife, determined to drink late into the evening and regaling others about once working with Stanley Kubrick. Yet his most touching moment comes late in the film when the cast and crew celebrate his birthday. He dances with one of the women in a moment that suggests he just likes being part of a big family.
Moretti might appear to agree; that every film is both its making as an aesthetic object and lives lived as a social encounter, with Mia Madre choosing to prioritise the latter over the former. The film doesnt end on the film wrapping up but on the death of the mother of the title. At the films conclusion, one of the mothers ex-students talks to Margherita and the other members of the family about how she might have been wonderful a teacher, but it was much more than that. The young woman tells an anecdote about a school trip where they were in a cafe with a jukebox and the mother danced so easily in the company of her students. She adds that Ada was a mother to her and many others as we might think back to the scene not long before when we see the often hopeless and hapless Huggins moving freely to the music amongst the crew. If we think about the film vocabulary in both scenes there is nothing new and much that is potentially filmically stale. The film uses reaction shots and slow zooms to point up and underscore the emotional content. There are shots of Margherita looking on as Barry dances, perhaps wondering whether he is more the life and soul of the movie than she happens to be, thinking back to the altercation between them, or perhaps well aware that her mother had a similar liking for life that she doesnt quite share. Moretti will use the reaction shot but that doesnt mean he demands from it a singular meaning. Perhaps we might wish he removed the close-up that cuts abruptly into the dancing, since much of what Moretti would seem to want to convey is evident in another shot that still incorporates the dancers and onlookers in the scene while registering the range of Margheritas emotions. But while it might be fair to wonder sometimes about Morettis aesthetic choices, this isnt the same as questioning his ethical authority.
This could seem like an odd notion: the idea of a filmmakers ethical authority, but it has been a morally aesthetic issue for at least half a century in France, passing from Rivettes writings, to Godard and Luc Moullets announcements, to Serge Daneys reviews. Explored well by Antoine de Bacque in Camera Historica, he notes that after 1945 cinema was haunted by the war and the Holocaust, and needed to find an ethos within an aesthetics. Filmmakers “had to find forms that, in the films themselves, would give expression to the end of innocence and to experimentation with the modern. This fundamentally transformed the classic contract that had held, in the name of cinema, between the auteur and the cinematic system, the director and the world, among the characters themselves, and between the storyteller and the spectator.” Where one would put the camera became an ongoing concern, and we can see that a reaction shot becomes not only an aesthetic choice but also an ethical decision. It is a point Village Voice critic Bilge Ebiri makes when reviewing Mia Madre. “Perspective matters, and how you frame a shot says a lot about how you see the world. (As Godard once put it, its not so much about making political movies, but about making movies politically.) It isnt by chance that Moretti cuts from this [opening] scene to a close-up of a nurse rubbing Margheritas sick mothers hands with medication. Thats the kind of detail a true humanist would focus on.” Morettis shot choices might not look very different from those of a conventional filmmaker, but we should find within them the ethos that makes them more than a manipulative device or awe-struck monumentalism. Spielberg in Jurassic Park also uses the zoom as he slowly moves into the kids and Sam Neils character after seeing a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but this obviously requires no ambiguity on the characters part. In James Camerons Titanic a character trying to save his child watches as water bursts down a door and his purpose is to look shocked and dismayed in a typical moment of movie suspense. These are reaction shots too, but if we were to offer a dismissive remark about the technique it wouldnt acknowledge enough the means with which it can be used. There is a difference between Cameron and Spielberg, and Moretti here.
Now of course when we watch films we arent only following the story, we are also being manipulated by techniques that play easily on our pre-consciousness. When someone looks off-screen we expect a cut to what they happen to be looking at. When the strings strike up sharply we anticipate a suspenseful moment and so on. We may believe we are simply being caught up in the narrative, but at the same time our conscious self is busy working things out the filmmaker has got there ahead of us with devices to lead our expectations. When a film shows us an establishing shot of a building, we would usually expect the next shot to be an interior of that building, perhaps a meeting in one of its offices. The filmmaker could, of course, blow the building up, or have a character small within the frame passing the building on the street. All would ostensibly be establishing shots, but that the first might be a convention, the second an expectation and the third an innovation, indicates the variety available in its use. Yet our expectation will probably rest on the first option, allowing the use of the second or the third to surprise us.
The closing image in Mia Madre is a reaction-shot, replete with a slow zoom into Margheritas face, and Arvo Parts music on the soundtrack. It potentially possesses a threefold obviousness. The film has cut from the mother lying in bed to Margherita looking on. We have the reaction shot itself, the slow zoom to emphasise it, and the score that underscores the feeling still more. Yet the shot also comes as a flashback, with Ada dead and Margherita moving around her mothers study before thinking of her when she was lying ill. Morettis shot choice might be obvious, but the feeling he extracts is not unambivalent. What is Margherita thinking about during this moment we might muse. She could just be grieving her mother, but she might also be wondering how her crew would describe her after she passes away – would they see her as their mother? She may also be thinking of her exs harsh words that she might now accept were also home truths, or of her relationship with her daughter whose feelings she might not always have been sensitive to. Moretti works with simple shot choices, but not always with simple feelings.
In an interview with Andrew Pulver in the Guardian, Pulver says there is something stereotypically Italian about an Italian talking about his mother. Moretti responds as if flummoxed by the remark and instead says that what interested him in making the film was that “the real autobiographical aspect is the feeling that Margherita has – that she never feels up to what she’s doing, that she’s always ill at ease.” Perhaps we might have wished for more experimentation in the form to reflect that anxiety, but we shouldnt believe that it isnt there at all because the form is less than challenging. Whether it is The Sons Room, We Have a Pope or Mia Madre, Moretti makes films that want to trouble us emotionally even if they dont challenge us formally. But there can be an odd disjunction that can surprise us in his work partly because of this question, and one perhaps consistent with the ethical aspect we have touched upon. The question becomes not how innovative the direction happens to be, but how unwilling the director is to utilise the emotional gratification that simplified forms often expect. When we give examples from Jurassic Park and Titanic it is because the form possesses an emotional pragmatism that doesnt ask pressing questions within the form. It accepts that the correlate between form and content is clear and simple. A man sees water bursting through the door and looks shocked. Children look at a dinosaur and appear awed. The simplicity of form meets the simplicity of content, and no elaborate ethos is generated out of the conjunction. When we look at formally predictable scenes in Mia Madre, however, no such conjunction can so readily be made.
We can think for example of the scene where Margherita meet up with Vittorio, and one shortly after when she discusses things with her brother. In the first Moretti establishes the shot of the two of them sitting at an outside cafe table, then cuts to a series of shot/counter shots. Yet the simplicity of the shooting shouldnt lead us to think that this is there to reflect the ease of the emotions. Rather the opposite as Margherita receives a dressing down from Vittorio that she knows she cant deny. Vittorio might be reflecting his bitterness about being left, but he is making statements that we assume are valid and perceptive. When he tells her that her daughter was hurt also by her own break-up, and might also be alluding to her being affected by Vittorio and her mothers split, Margherita seemed not to have noticed any of this: that the relationship was her business and not her daughters, no matter if a man coming into a mothers life when a daughter is involved is also coming into the childs. Margherita just seems piqued that her daughter confided and sought consolation in her grandmother and not Margherita. Now Ingmar Bergman was famous for scenes of devastating emotional criticism, from Winter Light to Scenes from a Marriage, Autumn Sonata, to The Passion of Anna, and would find a distinctive form in which to explore complicated emotion. Yet Bergmans figures were often neurotics and solipsists, people who would attack others leaving the viewer aware that the emotional evisceration was never objective – that it reflected a characters preoccupations. There is nothing in Vittorios remarks that suggest he is anything other than lucid, no matter if he is still no doubt in pain. However the scene is nuanced even if we know where we should stand in relation to the two characters. It is not a word we would use towards Bergmans exchanges. They are raw, revelatory and get to the core of the human, but nuanced isnt the word perhaps because they dont take place in the arena of the subtle concerns of the social, but in the nervous energy of the psychosexual. The point of Vittorios comments here is that they do not: he might be more inclined to say what he says out of hurt, but this doesnt remotely invalidate what he is saying: it is offered as an objective statement. When he says he was wrong to come, “that I shouldnt have answered your call”, this doesnt make what he says unreasonable; more that the saying of it probably wont make him feel very good about himself.
Nevertheless, the true statement might not make the messenger feel good about themselves as they deliver it, but it is a statement that probably needed to be delivered by someone. When Margherita talks to Giovanni, again we have a simple shot structure as the scene is established and the film moves into shot/counter shot. At one moment she talks about Vittorio saying terrible things to her and while Giovanni initially bristles and says how dare he, when Margherita says more he cant deny that Vittorio has a point. We may notice that Vittorio is sitting at a table nearby, oblivious it would seem to the conversation, but we are unlikely to be oblivious to his presence as Giovanni initially looks briefly in his direction on saying “how dare he.” Another more visually adventurous filmmaker might leave us to notice Vittorio for ourselves, and wonder if he might be capable of overhearing the discussion. Yet just because Moretti isnt at all innovative in his form this isnt the same thing as saying he is not subtle in his register of feeling. Vittorios comments come late in the film and Giovannis confirmation of their validity not long afterwards, and this is quite different than if the remarks had been made much earlier. We may choose to rewatch the film and see signs of Margheritas selfishness in the wake of Vittorios comments even if we might see a few signs of this selfishness earlier in the film. There is the scene for example when Margherita is leaving and Vittorio wonders if it would be possible for them still to have dinners together. She says “Vittorio, dont you have the slightest dignity?” This might be a valid remark couched in different terms by a friend: someone saying that if someone says they no longer want to stay with you, then it is best to distance yourself from that person. But coming so bluntly from a lover leaving, Margherita doesnt come across too well. Yet in the following scene is her unconscious facing this as she seems to wake from a dream sequence where a young couple replicate the moment in a cinema queue? Perhaps, finally, Margherita is less unthinking, than too quick to thought, too immediate in her responses as she is nervously snappy rather than especially self-absorbed. Late in the film, Giovanni and Margherita visit the hospital and the doctor tells them that their mother is dying. Giovanni takes it in his stride; Margherita looks like she will leap down the doctors throat as we might wonder what the idiomatic cliches tells us about each character. Giovanni always seems to take his own pulse and the pulse of the situation; Margherita over-reacts as though at the mercy of her nervous exhaustion. This is one supposes what Vittorio is talking about when he says that it is how she lives and how she makes people around her live. Again the scene in the doctors office is a simple shot/counter shot, but the scenes themselves have a reverberative effect: they have us thinking about other scenes in the film and aspects of the characters personalities. As Giovanni placates the situation, so we might wonder how often people have been doing this in Margheritas company.
Perhaps one reason why we are less inclined to see the subtle selfishness of Margheritas behaviour rests on us unavoidably seeing the robust, yet fragile egotism of Huggins, an actor who wears his personality on his sleeve as Margherita keeps hers tucked under her cuffs, aside from the odd moment of shortness. He arrives in Rome looking to use up most of his enormous energy playing the part of Barry Huggins over the character he is there to portray, and if he provides many of the films comedy moments, he also works as a shield in making us look more closely at the issues in Margheritas personality. In the big showdown between the pair of them when Huggins cant remember his lines, we are inclined to side with Margherita over Barry, but we might wonder what the crew looking on are thinking. They may be appalled by Barrys behaviour but would they agree with some of his sentiments? This is not at all the same as the scene where Vittorio has a go at Margherita – they are measured: harsh but fair. Barry offers an explosion, a fugue of self-aggrandizement and a summary dismissal of others. His Italian is limited and Margheritas English sparse, so there is usually a translator on set working between the two of them. As Barry yells that the “script is shit”, that he cant remember his lines because they would never come out of a real persons mouth, so we see a child in a large mans body; a workman blaming his tools and coming across as a bit of tool himself. Here is a man in denial, evident in the anecdote he tells about working with Stanley Kubrick, even if he never got the chance to make a moment of cinema with the great man. Yet he might be a more likeable figure than Margherita as he is often kind, warm, and even charming. When we see him dance near the end of the film with one of the other members of the crew, this is Barry at home in himself rather than the scared stranger who turns on Margherita.
If we focus so much on the characters in the film it could reside in Morettis insistence in keeping the form so simple that we arent inclined to ask too many questions about its presence, which might seem especially odd given that it is a film about the making of a movie. Contempt, Passion, Voyage to Cythera as well as the aforementioned 8 ½, Day for Night and The Stuntman all play up the form to tell the story, but Moretti plays it down except chiefly for comic relief. In the scene where Barry cant see in front of him as he drives during a dialogue heavy scene with cameras slapped on the car window, this is great for seeing the actors but pretty hopeless when it comes to Huggins seeing the road. It is actually a very good gag on the technology getting in the way of the actors performance. But this has nothing to do with CGI or the actor expected to hit an impossible mark; it is closer to Herzogs reckless brilliance in Fitzcarraldo presented instead as a humorous moment. If Herzog wanted to film an actual boat hauled over a mountain, in this jokey, micro-version Margherita expects her actor to drive with cameras blocking his vision. It makes it more realistic Margherita thinks, “Its more real, its more real. I like it” From Barrys point of view it is the opposite of realistic as he tries to find a way to say his lines, drive a car and pretend that he can see where he is going. It is the opposite of course of back projection, and consistent with why Barry initially wants to work with Margherita, seeing her in the grand tradition of neo-realism. Nevertheless, a certain fidelity to realistic aesthetics can arrive at the hopelessly artificial, and Morettis film captures not the absurd genius of Herzog, but the misguided parti pris of Margherita.
The authenticity in Morettis films lies elsewhere as the form is pragmatic and inclined to call attention to itself only as a mode of self-deprecation. The point of Morettis film doesnt rest on aesthetic achievement but instead on human feeling, on the idea that it isnt how one uses people but how one treats them. This isnt to claim that some directors are exploitative and others not, that is an anecdotal question that would demand the sort of detailed and potentially scurrilous research of a biographer, but is nevertheless perhaps hinted at in the film through the Huggins story. Kubrick had Barry waiting for three months in a hotel room for a possible one week shoot; Huggins even missed the birth of his child, he claims. Vittorios attack on Margherita suggests she might not always be so much better as she admits that she hasnt been giving too much time to his feelings and their break-up because she is in the middle of a film. Morettis however is very concerned with everything that goes on in and around a movie and the idea that just because we might be making a work of art that doesnt mean our lives should be suspended during the making of it. The film, after all, isnt called Mia Cinema but Mia Madre. The mothers life and death hangs over the film like a conscience, as if she was someone who always saw how important it was to treat her students and not see them as a means to an end: to the pleasure an education can provide over the pressures achievements often demand. There is no sense that grades would be the priority. Moretti suggests Margherita is nevertheless still a filmmaker aware of the ethics of cinema, evident when he says in Bright Lights Film Journal about the opening of the film: “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.” But there are moments where her nerves get the better of her; her realist ambitions become detrimental to the actors naturalism and even their safety as we see in the car sequence.
Consequently, we can see the title as a certain ethical ideal in embodied form, and an awareness on Morettis part that any exploration is contained by the sensitivity of our mortal reality. While researching the film he talks about some of the material he wanted to look at. “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.” There is no abstract ethical or aesthetic ideal – simply a pragmatic awareness of living well, treating people kindly and doing work you believe in. Moretti insists in Bright Lights Film Journal that the film Margherita is making is a serious and accomplished one, no matter the humour in the process of making it, but there is also the notion that her ideals for the film cant easily be matched in her life. She is human after all, and for Moretti this is a quality, not a cliché. “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.” (Bright Lights Film Journal) The film might not at all be radical but its sentiment remains pertinent. It is a quiet film yet not quite a small one as it suggests cinema can still be made that speaks truths within cinematic convention.
© Tony McKibbin