“Mia Madre” by Nanni Moretti — an essay, more than a review
“Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not.”
When was the last time you heard a great last line in a movie? So great it made you burst into tears? The final line in Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” is not a brilliant sentence in itself. (Then again, is “rosebud” profound in itself?) But in context – the way it references an earlier conversation in the film, as well as sums up the theme of the movie, and most importantly creates a definitive and meaningful end to the story (and endings are always difficult, even for the best filmmakers), in that way, this was an enormously powerful and stirring end – probably the best final line to a movie that anyone heard at the 53rd New York Film Festival. And it literally made me cry out loud.
Basically, this is a story about a woman whose mother is dying. But, don’t imagine grim or depressing. Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not. It’s like writer/director Nanni Moretti (“The Son’s Room”) is tapping into an ancient source of pure emotion. And he does it so gracefully. The film is gently, deeply astute. The lyricism in the language adds to the effect; Italian is such an elegant language. It’s all part of this organic sensation that comes from the film – this gorgeous feeling that grows out of my stomach and blooms in my chest.
In conversation after the screening, Moretti actually says that he wants the audience to feel that the movie is digging inside of them. That’s exactly what I felt. Or, I felt the movie carving into me. As I watched, I felt like I was being sculpted. I felt as if a great master, Michelangelo, was carefully cutting, chiseling into me, and so he – the sculptor, the director, the writer – is making us – the audience – into his magnificent carved creation. And in that way, Moretti is elevating us with his talent, his vision. He is making us sublime.
Except it really wasn’t “us.” It was just me alone and that movie. It was so intimate. I start off watching the movie from outside and thinking about it – thinking I will “review” it, and then I am in the movie. I am living it. It is living me. I am not audience observing a film; we are involved in each other in some palpable way. It’s almost physical – like I can literally feel it touching me. It brings me to life in an odd way; I can feel my heart inside my body.
Of course, the death of a parent is a universal experience, but this film manages to make it feel uniquely personal. I feel as if this director has been watching me in my life, with my family, and is now explaining myself to me. Although, I suspect it’s an explanation that will feel relevant or resonant to nearly every adult. Perhaps the film score helps me to feel so fully enthralled – a variety of music from Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass, Nino Rota, and Arvo Part.
Other critics may focus on the story that binds the film’s emotions together, but the movie is more about the emotions than the story. The lead character (played with glorious subtlety by Margherita Buy) is an Italian filmmaker who is shooting a movie while her mother is dying in a hospital. Actually, this is a semi-autobiographical film in that Mortetti had his mother die while he was shooting a previous film. However, I think that fact is more significant to the personal life of Moretti than to the body of this film; having an experience and elevating that experience to an art form are two very different things.
“Death is breathing life while life is killing her.”
In this movie, the story functions to bring in the outside world and its pressing realities and complexities. The specifics of what job the central character has are mostly inconsequential. Although, it is worth noting that the character’s persistent and diligent return to the stress of her work environment, after each vigil beside her dying mother, shows that life goes on.
The story also serves by bringing smartly implemented humor. John Tuturro plays an American who is a hilariously bad actor in the film that our lead is trying to make. Tuturro’s approach is broad and exuberant, which is startling in this otherwise quiet movie, and ultimately Tuturro’s excited approach not only works but becomes essential to Moretti’s message. I am laughing, I am crying, I am laughing, I am crying… I am exalted.
Another running joke in the film is when our protagonist director repeatedly tells her actors to “be the character you are playing at the same time as you stand outside the character.” No one understands this instruction, and finally the director herself admits that she doesn’t know what she means. But I see this as appropriately consistent with my unusual experience of the film; I am both standing outside it — watching, and in it — experiencing.
Fundamentally, this is a story about emotion. It’s an exploration of humanity. It is life and death – beautiful and heartbreaking, devastating and inspiring. It was excruciating to watch a scene where our lead character is stripped naked and exposed (metaphorically); she’s made vulnerable and cut to shreds – destroyed. Then, she goes and sits silently beside her dying mother, and that gives her new life. It revives her. It saves her. Death is breathing life while life is killing her.
In the press conference, Moretti is talking, with his lovely Italian accent, and I hear… “love erupts in solitude.” I don’t even know what that means, but I totally feel it. I leave the theater feeling newly alive.
—– Update: After playing at the 53rd New York International Film Festival, this movie played at the Chicago International Film Festival, and then virtually disappeared from the U.S. But look for it to return in March 2016, at your local art / indie /foreign-film theater. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or prize at Cannes Film Festival and won Best Non-U.S. Release at the Online Film Critics Society Awards.
HelenHighly Critiques the Film “Carol” and Compares it to the film “Brooklyn”
The movie “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett, is a lesbian romantic drama that is based on the book “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, and it’s getting named Best Film of the Year by just about everyone, it seems, and making all the award short-lists. And Helen is Highly disappointed. I’m going to compare it to the movie “Brooklyn,” to explain why. But let me add up front that the film was costumed by Sandy Powell, art directed by Jesse Rosenthal, and filmed by Edward Lachman, who will all likely (and deservingly) receive awards for their work here. But I have issues with director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy.
I saw “Carol” at the 53rd New York Film Festival, where just about every film was more interesting than this gigantic slice of Boring. After watching the film, I assumed most people would dislike it as much as I did, so I was shocked when I did a quick Google search and saw the Variety review pop up saying “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for the startling impact of Carol,exquisitely drawn, deeply felt…” No way! (I usually like Justin Chang, but I disagree with him and nearly everyone else about this film.) My first order of business is to change Variety’s intro line: “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for”: the slow emptiness of this mundane, overly precious, pointlessly detailed movie.
Listen, I adore Cate Blanchett as much as anyone. And no one can say she is not gorgeous. At one point in the film – at a party, her estranged husband concedes to her that she is the most beautiful woman in the room. Well, that never changes. She is the most beautiful and the best dressed and best accessorized and best groomed person in every scene. So, let’s all agree to put Cate Blanchett’s face in the dictionary under the word Perfection, and then we can all go home and save ourselves two hours of lifeless artifice. And if Cate were selling lipstick, or stockings, or fur coats, I would buy them all. But I would not recommend this movie to anyone.
I’m happy for Blanchett that she got such a glamorous star vehicle in which to show off. But why is no one else stating the obvious – that this is essentially a vanity project for Cate Blanchett? Unfortunately however, in this movie, we cannot see Cate’s rich inner life through the heavy cover of makeup and fur.
Remember the final season’s opening episode on “Mad Men,” where Don Draper is trying desperately to find the ideal, alluring model to put in his fur coat ad? Todd Haynes’ Cate Blanchett should get that job! She is precisely what Don was looking for – an impossibly beautiful fantasy of aspirational glamour and exquisite opulence. Women want to be her and men want to have her, exactly because she is so flawless and empty; you feel nothing for her or from her as a character – no complicated emotions to ruin the high-gloss facade. And honestly, Cate, you are better than this; you don’t need to advertise your quintessential (surface) beauty. That Don Draper gig, and this movie, are beneath you; you can act.
The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal.
This brings me to the lesbian theme of the story. Helen Highly objects to the portrayal of Carol and her younger lover (played by Rooney Mara) as a Hollywood male fantasy of woman-on-woman sexuality. Due to Haynes’ decision to maintain the look-and-feel of a 1950s flick, the movie refrains from overtly explicit sex scenes, but still it has the tone of cheesy pin-up porn – made for men, and not about real-life women who have ambiguous thoughts and difficult feelings. Highsmith’s 1953 book, “The Price of Salt,” became a lesbian-romance cult-novel, due largely to its being the first authentic expression of lesbian love that did not have the punishing ending that was prescribed by 1950s morality. Highsmith was a lesbian herself (a fact she denied throughout most of her career), and this story is semi-autobiographical, telling the tale of when she was a shop girl who fell into a romantic obsession over an older married woman who was a customer at the store. But let’s stop there for a moment. (Well, there’s not much else to tell; the movie mostly repeats variations of the first scene.)
Part of Helen being Highly annoyed is that so many people are eager to say how this film is “important for women” – as if it were still the act of sexual bravery and social revelation it was in the 1950s. And that is simply not the case. Today, the storyline reads as old news and naively obvious. The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal. And this is the fault of the screenplay and the direction, which do not capture the emotional intensity or poetic eroticism of the book. (Watch Dec. 19th’s “Saturday Night Live” and see their skit about how a male director is ruining an otherwise good 1950’s movie about two lesbians. Ha.)
The book meticulously detailed the inner lives of these two, passionate yet confused women; the film, instead, meticulously (and ploddingly) details a story that was only loosely referenced in the book (because Highsmith was interested in tortuous desire and fearful loneliness, not a who-gets-the-kid divorce case). In the movie that Nagy and Haynes made, the tale becomes a simplistic, self-righteous, politically-correct after-school-special. Haynes attempts, it seems, to depict the women’s emotions with an endless series of long, silent gazes. The film becomes tedious quickly, as we see the same posed, passive expressions played over and over – against a range of sumptuous backgrounds. And so it seems that Haynes cares more about his visual style than he does the psychology of his characters.
Todd Haynes is no Hitchcock.
Now, because of all the unwarranted hoopla about this movie, it becomes important to discuss Highsmith’s other books, several of which were made into highly successful movies, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train” among them. Highsmith published “The Price of Salt” under another name and disowned the book for many years, not wanting to derail her career as a successful mystery writer. Other than this one-off erotic lesbian tale, Highsmith wrote thrillers. Margaret Talbot, at the “New Yorker,” recently wrote a fascinating article about the background of the movie, in which she explained: “In 1952, Coward-McCann published ‘The Price of Salt.’ Harpers & Bros., which had released ‘Strangers on a Train’ two years earlier, turned it down, perhaps because it wasn’t another thriller.” So, all you devoted Highsmith fans, just be aware: this one is not like the others — not the book and definitely not the film. By the way, The “New Yorker” article is very worth reading and includes many quotes from the book, which are strikingly different from the minimal, stilted language of the film.
And to my smart-yet-in-this-case-incorrect friend, and others, who like to say that “Carol” is comparable to the brilliant and classic “Strangers on a Train,” I say two things:
1) Haynes is no Hitchcock. Yes, Hitchcock and Highsmith shared an affection for frosty blondes (and perhaps Todd Haynes does as well). But Hitchcock was a master. He knew how to make an ice-queen come alive on the screen.
2) “Carol” is no thriller. Hitchcock also understood plot; he knew what was a compelling story and what was not. “Carol” is not.
So, Cate Blanchett and Todd Haynes can wish she were Grace Kelly or Kim Novak all day long, but she’s not going to touch a hair of their blonde locks with this script and this director.
It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie!
The other night, taking a break from writing this review, I went to Joes’ Pub at the Public Theater to see a wacky Christmas cabaret by Justin Vivian Bond, called “Angels We Have Heard When High” (HelenHighly was highly intrigued.)
To my surprise and delight, much of the comic element of the show was based on the movie “Carol.” It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie! Bond smartly comments at one point, “’The Price of Salt’ was at least based on something real.” Bond scoffs at the notion that there is anything true or sexy in the film and hilariously explains that despite the director’s meticulous efforts to create 1950s verisimilitude, he neglects the important detail of Cate Blanchett’s fingernails.
Bond says that it’s clearly apparent that Carol has a gel manicure – something only recently invented and very different from the nail polish the character would have worn in her day. Ha! That is so true! (Gel “no-chip” polish and processing essentially bake the color onto the nails and have been a game-changer in the world of manicures. The color lasts for weeks instead of days and is a major 21st-century advancement, which would have been nothing but a sci-fi fantasy to any 1950s woman.) Bond goes on to insist that at least during the several-day-long road trip, where Carol is living out of a suitcase, she would have had a couple chips in her perfect nail color. But Haynes did not allow that, keeping Carol a phony character instead.
Bond also bemoans the film’s false portrayal of the “May-December romance” (which is important in the book). She says she is all for older men or women getting it on with young, hot things, but alas she was once the May and is now the December part of that equation. And she knows what that feels like and looks like (and so does HelenHighly), and there is no way that “December” looks like Cate Blanchett’s perfection. Bond resents now having to live up to Todd Haynes’ unrealistic depiction of a December lover. Once again: Helen Highly agrees!
In “Brooklyn,” the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them.
While watching the screening of “Carol” at the New York Film Festival, I made very few notes in my book, because there was nothing interesting to write down (IMHO). But soon after, there was a screening of the film “Brooklyn,” another historically-accurate, sentimental love story that was adapted from an acclaimed book (screenplay by Nick Hornby). I made quite a few notes about that movie. Remarkably, the two films take place in the same year and in the same city (New York and its environs) and both generally deal with the problems of pulled-in-two-directions love and related family pressure. The big difference: I care about the characters in “Brooklyn”!
In the movie “Brooklyn,” the main character is Ellis Lacey (played with heart by Saoirse Ronan), and like Carol, she struggles with a love dilemma and is nearly torn apart by it. Both stories also include a theme about secrets and spies who reveal those secrets, plus the themes of betrayal and nasty gossip. Watching Ellis, I ached for her. Carol’s plight left me cold.
Both films have been critically applauded for their lush cinematography and vivid, vintage design. But in “Brooklyn,” the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them. Interestingly, in an interview after the screening, director John Crowley explained that he wanted the film to seem “artless,” and he did not cast the roles “for looks,” but rather for “inner truth.” And that inner truth is indeed expressed in the film, which rises above its sentimentality by letting the characters earn their emotions. Crowley brings the audience close and lets us follow the inner workings of the characters. Haynes maintains a cool distance throughout.
There is a scene in “Brooklyn” where Ellis takes her first trip to the beach at Coney Island, and when she comes out from behind her towel and reveals her “swim costume,” it is a glorious moment. I felt myself beaming for her. I wrote in my notes, “rapture!” And the feeling of rapture is exactly what was needed and missing from “Carol.” When Ellis’ sister dies, I was devastated. I felt her pain. For Carol, I could only yawn (and sneer at suffering that seemed so fake).
Todd Haynes, I know you are a skilled and well-regarded filmmaker (and thank you for the movie “I’m Not There,” where Cate Blanchett is put to much better use, btw), but Helen Highly suggests that you watch the movie “Brooklyn” and take a few notes.
In her poetic film collage essay, “Heart of a Dog,” Laurie Anderson is more beautifully and thoughtfully herself than ever.
“It seems the movie is often shedding its own tears… as if life itself is crying.”
Anderson has had a long career, but was most well-known in the 80’s as an experimental performance artist, composer, and musician who especially explored the mix of spoken word and music. Those who know her albums such as “Big Science” and “Home of the Brave” will appreciate the return of the fragmented rhythm and quizzical tone of Anderson’s speech, opening with voice-over sentences such as “This is my dream body – the one I use to walk around in my dreams,” and “It’s like one of those old movies…” It’s like one of Anderson’s old albums, only … Much, Much, Better (to quote Anderson in “Language is a Virus”).
Despite the film’s seemingly stream-of-conscious, no-plot, hodge-podge approach, Anderson has meaningful ideas to express, and she’s woven together an elegant and smartly structured tone-and-picture poem. The movie combines her personal stories and musings with quotations from renowned philosophers, ink drawings on paper, printed words, animation, scratchy old 8mm home-movie clips, new footage of landscapes, surveillance camera footage with time codes, graphic images such as computer icons, and her ingenious use of music.
As always, Anderson excels at language, and here she combines various types of on-screen text with her own lyrical voice-over. I often leave a movie wanting to run home and download the soundtrack, but in this case I am yearning for a transcript. These are words worthy of reading and contemplating. “Try to learn how to feel sad without being sad,” is just one of the many sentences that could use more time to resonate than one viewing allows.
But one of the surprises of this project may be Anderson’s sophisticated and inventive cinematography. As the film explores a variety of deaths – the death of Anderson’s dog, the death of her mother, the death of her husband (Lou Reed), and the mass deaths of 9/11 in New York, it seems the movie is often shedding its own tears. Many sequences are shot through a pane of glass that is dripping with water, like life itself is crying. And then she turns footage of an ocean upside down, with the foreground still raining, so the sea that has become the sky is weeping too. In front of everything, Anderson seems to be saying, is a gentle, pervasive sadness.
And yet, the movie is not even remotely maudlin. It discusses 9/11 in way that actually adds fresh insight, which seems impossible after so many anniversaries full of remembrance ceremonies, and so many other films that have also integrated that tragic event. In fact, this movie would have made a much better selection for the Opening Film of this year’s New York Film Festival than “The Walk,” which is ostensibly about the man who walked a tightrope between the world’s tallest pair of buildings, but is mostly a sentimental homage to the Twin Towers, complete with golden reflected sunset footage of the Towers and seemingly endless talk about their dramatic importance. For all the “The Walk’s” telling us how we should feel, and trying so desperately to rouse emotion, it fails in that regard. Laurie Anderson is a long-time New York resident and artist, and this film speaks so sincerely to New Yorkers in particular, that it would have made an intensely appropriate opening for the New York Film Festival, which took place so close to 9/11. (Of course, the film is also relevant to all Americans, and all human beings, at any time of year.)
Perhaps the strongest moment in Anderson’s film is when she takes her dog outdoors in a big field and enjoys watching her run and play in tall grass and aromatic dirt, as dogs do. And the camera pans up to the bright blue sky; it is such a beautiful day. And then we see pretty white trails in the sky, moving in circles. Anderson tells us they are birds. And then she sees that they are hawks. And she describes the look in the eyes of her dog, Lolabelle, as the dog peers up and realizes that she… is prey. The dog understands that these birds have come for the purpose of killing her. And Anderson bemoans the new reality that now the dog must not only be aware of the ground and the grass and the other earthbound creatures, but also that huge, untouchable expanse of sky. The sky is now a danger. And the dog will never view the sky the same again.
Cut to footage of 9/11 as Anderson compares her dog’s feeling to hers, and ours, when we suddenly understood that “something was wrong with the air”; the sky brought danger and those flying planes were there for the purpose of killing us. And “it would be that way from now on.”
Anderson goes on to talk about the strangeness of living in a post-9/11 surveillance state, where we are always being recorded. But she does not take the obvious path of complaining about the social injustice. Instead, she takes a clever twist and points out that all your actions are now data. And that data is always being collected, but it will not be watched until after you commit a crime. Then your story is pieced together, in reverse – footage of where you went and what you did, being viewed backwards from the most recent moment. And then she throws in a quote from Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward.”
And intermixed with philosophy, Anderson keeps her wry sense of humor. At one point, she talks about a dream in which she gives birth to her dog. She illustrates the tale with bizarre comic drawings, and then she tells us that the dog looks up at her and says, “Thank you so much for having me,” as if it has just been invited to a tea party. Ha.
“This film has heart.”
Later she talks about her own childhood memory of a trauma and reveals how our minds naturally clean up memories, leaving out certain details, and in that way you are holding onto a story and every time you tell the story, you forget it more. Cut to the computer icon of Missing File. The associations keep piling up, and they do indeed add up.
The unfortunate irony is that “Heart of a Dog” will be classified as conceptual filmmaking, and dismissed by those who won’t see it as too cerebral, while it actually uses a complex and intellectual style, very astutely, to access emotional and intimate realities that are difficult to reach through overt methods.
This film does tell a story, in its own subtly layered way. It is sometimes a meditation on how to go on living despite despair – “the purpose of death is the release of love,” but it is also clearly Laurie Anderson’s own personal tale. This is a tender memoir. It’s Anderson’s love story, about her dog, her mother, her husband, and her city. In the most uncommon and evocative way, this film has heart.
The complete soundtrack recording of “Heart of a Dog” is available from Nonesuch Records. The Nonesuch album is the full audio recording of the film, including all music and spoken text.