Note: the following review Includes SPOILERS
Giovanni (Nanni Moretti) is a good man, a dedicated psychoanalyst, loving husband, and sensible father. A series of short scenes at the beginning of The Son’s Room—last spring’s Palme d’Or winner, directed and co-written by Moretti, with Linda Ferri and Heidrun Schleef—reveals his stability and contentment. He sits patiently through variously (sometimes comically) dull patients’ narrations (detailing dreams and physical ailments), takes morning jogs through the pretty seaport town of Ancona, eats family dinners with his beautiful teenager, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) and Irene (Jasmine Trinca), and loving wife Paola (Laura Morante).
Like most families, this one negotiates minor bumps, but the film is already setting up a tension, as little incidents look vaguely ominous, signs that daily life is either too routine, or not quite routine enough: Irene rides on a friend’s motorbike through busy streets, thrilling to the risk; Paola witnesses a mugging, too close for comfort; Andrea is busted for stealing a fossil from his science classroom, perhaps rebelling against expectations that he’ll always be the golden boy that he has been, perhaps just bored. And Giovanni, listening to one patient relate his experiences with porn and another list her obsessive-compulsive behaviors, he can’t help himself: as they lie on the couch, away from him, he rolls his eyes, then imagines jumping up during the latter’s session to show her his neatly lined-up collection of running shoes. “Look,” he tells her in his daydream, “I’m just as boring as you!”
But as the film goes on to insist, such tedium is life, and it is precious. Nothing can prepare Giovanni or his family for what’s to come, though by now you’ll likely have a sense that this surplus of comfort is about to crack open. As it usually does, life-changing disaster comes unexpectedly.
On the day that his son dies, a Sunday, Giovanni goes to see a patient recently diagnosed with lung cancer. In doing so, he breaks a jogging date he’s made with Andrea. At the time, the change in plans seems insignificant; Andrea is reluctant, more interested in going diving with his friends, and Giovanni is also vaguely distracted. They can always go jogging another day. Then, Andrea has his accident—for some unknowable reason, he is trapped in an underwater cave and drowns. And suddenly, Giovanni’s decision looks like a tragic, horrific, unforgivable error.
The rest of the film concerns the survivors’ efforts to live with their guilt, rage, sorrow, and, perhaps especially, with each other. Their initial collapses are followed by displays of stoic resolve, mutually supportive (being “strong” for one another) and self-isolating. At the funeral home, they view the body, surrounded by family and friends; then, as the others clear out, Giovanni watches as workers drill the coffin shut: the sound, so everyday, is harrowing. And his visit to a marine shop to inquire after the workings of oxygen tanks leads to further frustration: there is no reason for what went wrong, no explanation. Only anger, grief, and endless loss.
When going through “the son’s room,” Paola comes across a letter from a girl that Andrea knew briefly, one summer, and the girl becomes a kind of unseen conduit, a means to reconnect with and eventually, let go of him. But when she presses Giovanni to contact Arianna (Sofia Vigliar), he resists, fearful that the slightest opening will allow all his finely tamped down pain to come rushing to the surface. At last, the family does meet with her while she passes through Ancona on a hitchhiking trip with a friend, and though charming and sweet, Arianna is also unexceptional. Still, this becomes significant: Arianna’s ordinariness is in itself somewhat startling, and her youthful anticipation and lack of burden, become the means by which Giovanni, Paola, and Irene can begin to come to terms not only with their bereavement, but with one another, this realized in its closing image, as they wander into sunlight, separately, but as if drawn to the same warmth.
The film is something of a departure for Moretti, best known for his comedies (some call him “the Woody Allen of Italy,” as he’s similarly a multi-threat artist: star, director, and writer). This makes The Son’s Room, so dark and raw, something of a surprise. And since September 11, it’s been reread alongside films like Todd Field’s In the Bedroom—and in a 24 February New York Times piece, Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There?, Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball, and Ray Lawrence’s Lantana—as a meditation on the aftermath of death, survivors’ efforts to live on. While events have necessarily changed perspectives on the film, it maintains a gentle, respectful sensibility: characters’ responses are erratic—ranging from admirably self-aware to understandably irrational—but not milked for pathos or grand pronouncements on the human condition.