Cannes 2015: 'Mia Madre' and 'Tale of Tales' Are Two Contrasting Italian Films

Mia Madre (2015)

Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre is a minor-key ode to family and film-making, while Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales is a wild fairytale ride.

Mia Madre

Director: Nanni Moretti
Cast: Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Giulia Lazzarini
Year: 2015

Tale of Tales

Director: Matteo Garrone
Cast: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones
Year: 2015

In Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre, Margherita Buy plays Margherita, a director whose current project is a worthy but rather weak-looking film about industrial action. The completion of the film isn't the only thing that Margherita has on her mind, though. She's also stressing about interpersonal relationships and, more particularly, about the condition of her ailing, elderly mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), who's in hospital where Margherita's brother Giovanni (Moretti) keeps a regular vigil.

As Margherita frets about her mother and worries over her film, experiencing odd dreams and hallucinations, her problems are exacerbated by the arrival of an American actor (John Turturro) whose erratic behaviour is soon making life even more difficult on the set.

Screening (to the mystification of many) in the main Competition at Cannes 2015, Mia Madre marks Moretti's return to the more sincere, personal style of filmmaking represented by the Palme d’or-winning The Son's Room (2001) after his satirically-inclined The Caiman (2006) and We Have a Pope (2013). The result is less successful, however. As soon as the credits roll -- austere white-on-black, accompanied by plaintive piano -- premonitions of dullness may surface. Unlike the dilemmas of the grief-haunted parents in The Son's Room, Margherita's troubles fail to really move or engage. What emerges instead is a mild and mediocre ode to family and filmmaking.

The odd thing is that, despite Mia Madre's evident personal associations for Moretti (namely, its inspiration in the death of his own mother, which happened when he was making a film) the movie seldom feels very heartfelt; rather, it's a strangely anonymous and textureless piece of work for the most part. Scenes that show Margherita's daughter (charming Beatrice Mancini) struggling over Latin, or learning to ride a moped (the latter sequence scored to Jarvis Cocker crooning "Baby's Coming Back to Me") don't advance the film, or show enough insight into the details of dailiness to really earn their keep. The movie doesn't build: it's flaccid. Nothing in the film is totally boring but nothing is very interesting, either.

Nothing, that is, except for John Turturro, who livens up the proceedings so much that his scenes were greeted by a palpable stir of appreciation and pleasure from the audience. The role of Barry Huggins is a caricature, of course: he's a boastful, loud American actor who has more demands and eccentricities than he has talent. ("Show me Rome, Fellini's Rome!" he bellows, not long after asking Margherita to sleep with him.) But Turturro goes at the part with such juicy relish that his appearances become the highlights of the movie, cutting through the film's calculated good intentions.

Buy acquits herself just fine, and has some affecting moments, especially in a sequence in with Margherita finds her apartment flooded. However, with the exception of Turturro's scenes, Moretti's movie is disappointingly bland overall.

Tale of Tales (Il racconto dei racconti) (2015)

Whatever else you might say about it, "bland" is not a description that anyone seems likely to lob at Matteo Garrone's Tale of Tales (Il Racconto dei Racconti). Garrone's latest, his English language debut, is a spiffing riff on fairytales that interweaves three stories by 17th century Neapolitan author Giambattista Basile. Unfolding in a lavishly-rendered world of monsters and ogres, dwarfs and dancing bears, crones and queens, the movie features such indelible elements as John C. Reilly going into battle with a sea monster, Salma Hayek chowing down on said monster's heart in order to achieve pregnancy, a Princess (brilliant newcomer Bebe Cave) being dragged to the lair of a very undesirable spouse, a flayed Shirley Henderson, and Toby Jones raising a flea to gargantuan size.

This is hardly a movie that one would have expected Garrone to make, following his record with the contemporary films Gomorrah (2008) and Reality (2012), both of which were awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes. Aided by an international cast, a plethora of (mostly great) effects, terrific costumes (by Massimo Cantini Parrini), and a fine score by Alexandre Desplat, the director proves himself more than up to the task.

Indeed, given the current saturation of fantasy films and TV shows, and the vogue for fairytale revisionism, Tale of Tales feels surprisingly fresh throughout. The comparative novelty of the Basile material (to those outside Italy, anyway) helps, and so do the director's wily homages to such filmmakers as Terry Gilliam and Walerian Borowczyk. Like all potent fairytales, the stories here are rooted in pain, betrayal, loss and longing, and the movie successfully combines grotesquery with more tender moments. Henderson's delivery of the line "I want to be with my sister" -- which becomes a refrain for her character in the second half of the film -- may haunt you for days to come.

Structurally the movie has some shortcomings. The interweaving of the three tales is far from elegant, with several awkward and clunky transitions. But once the viewer accustoms themselves to that Tale of Tales emerges as blissfully enjoyable, and its unevenness becomes part of the wildness of the ride.

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