BOOKS AND ARTS AUGUST 15, 2009
Quiet Chaos -- IFC Films
The Girl From Monaco -- Magnolia Pictures
Nanni Moretti, treasured in Europe, is scarcely known in the United States. This schism usually happens with film people whose work is strapped culturally to one country, but Moretti's writing and directing and acting are not only celebrated in Italy, they have prospered elsewhere. Not here, however, though his strongest concern is human commonality.
Sometimes, in a career that began in 1973, he has appeared in films directed by others. This is true of his latest, Quiet Chaos. He was co-author of the screenplay, adapted from a novel by Sandro Veronesi, but the picture was directed by someone else. Thus we get the chance with this film to concentrate on Moretti the actor, his screen presence and aura. He has often been compared to Woody Allen, but the comparison is weak. The two of them share only two qualities. Both of them are intelligent, with intelligent interests. Both of them are ordinary-looking; if their faces were not familiar, we would pass them in the street without a second glance. The differences between them, however, are drastic.
Allen is a comic, always groping through the serious toward the laugh; Moretti is no more comic than any of us and less than some. Most importantly, Allen performs for admiration and Moretti wants to avoid the atmosphere of performance. Unlike Allen, he wants us to focus on what is going on, not on him. He wants us to see ourselves in him, certainly including--apropos of modern pressures and eternal questions--the women in the audience. On screen he has created a being. In The History of Italian Cinema, just published here, Gian Piero Brunetta has a section called "Moretti's Films as the Diary of a Generation," in which he writes: "Thanks to his innate talent, Moretti was able to create a sort of autobiographical pact with his audience. He became the singer of their lives and beliefs." Perhaps Quiet Chaos, which is exquisitely done, will extend that pact to us.
Here Moretti plays Pietro, a successful Roman television executive in his forties. He is married and has a daughter of ten, Claudia. We see him first on a beach playing paddleball with his younger brother, Carlo. Suddenly there are calls for help from two swimmers, two women. The brothers rescue them. That same day, when Pietro gets home, he finds that his wife has been killed in an accident.
One of the rescued women figures later, strikingly, but naturally the wife's death is catastrophic. These opening sequences of overt drama are paradoxical; from then on, the drama is internal. Pietro, in the succeeding days, is not overtly grief-stricken: he simply withdraws--into the love of Claudia. He drives her to school every morning, then he waits for her all day--all day--in the park outside, except when he stops in a cafe for a midday bite. After school he takes Claudia home.
Yet, even while he is sitting there in the park, he is willy-nilly involved in a big business deal affecting his company. Colleagues visit him in the park, apparently understanding, in the midst of their whirl, his withdrawal. He listens, responds briefly, keeps sitting in the park. His life there takes on texture. A boy with Down syndrome is escorted through the park every day, and Pietro switches on the headlights in his car when the boy passes because he likes to wave at them. A lovely young woman walks her dog in the park every day, and she and Pietro expect each other to be there without ever speaking. An elderly widower who lives in an apartment on the park watches Pietro, senses loneliness, and invites him up for spaghetti. Through these sequences, which form a tiny cosmos, the score by Paolo Buonvino merely tinkles, as if the arrival of each note were a step onward for Pietro. At times Moretti and Buonvino almost seem to be collaborating.
Pietro is visited, too, by Marta, his sister-in-law, who had briefly been his lover long ago and who is now pregnant. She seems almost to be using her trouble as a means to draw him back into activity. But, with sympathy, he remains where he is. His brother, Carlo, induces him one evening to try some opium to break him loose. This, too, fails to "kick in." Pietro even has an explicit sex scene, apparently to show himself as well as us that he is still alive. But it does not alter his current pattern.
In time the most important man in his firm's current deal comes to the park to talk to him. (This boss is played by a well-known director who is not identified until the closing credits.) Pietro listens. But he is not really shaken out of his abeyance--not until Claudia, his adored and adoring daughter, asks him please to stop waiting for her all day. The other children are beginning to laugh at her. Claudia's plea, in itself and in its implication of distorted existence, jolts Pietro into accepting what he has really never forgotten: life, in its brutal, teasing way, has a role--some sort, anyway--for everyone. Pietro has been stunned for a while, recovering near his daughter. Now he resumes his performance, altered of course, but his.
I have detailed some of what happens to show that, in conventional terms, it is not much. The film depends on Moretti, who conveys the quiet chaos in Pietro with daily occurrences, not grand emotional moments. His big-nosed, bearded face seems always to be revealing what he is trying to conceal. Pietro has never been naive: but he spends the time of the film poring over the elements in life that he is not naive about. At the end, prompted by his daughter more than she knows, he accepts what has happened and what will happen. In any case, Claudia will be there.
The first time I saw Moretti he was a priest. In The Mass Is Ended (1985), which he also directed, he played a young cleric who is assigned to a parish in Rome that includes a lot of his contemporaries, young men and women with whom he once partied. The special pressures thus invoked for the priest were wonderfully realized by Moretti. Other films, often autobiographical, followed. (He has been publicly radical in politics but has lately somewhat readjusted.) The last Moretti film that I saw was also directed by him--The Son's Room (2001), a Cannes prizewinner, which was also about a bereaved man, the father of a teenage boy. There, too, death became an occasion for appraisal of life.
Moretti is noted in Italy for helping young directors. The director of Quiet Chaos, Antonello Grimaldi, is hardly a newcomer--he has been making films for twenty years--but I would hazard that Moretti saw gifts in him that were not being fully used and helped him here to exercise them. Grimaldi has a good sense of integration, melding the composition of the shot and the camera angle with what is thematic in the scene. A slow circling of Pietro on his cell phone at a stressed moment underscores the troubles inside him. A long shot of the big capitalist arriving in the park, accompanied by three bodyguards, tells us all we need to know about the approach of power. Fundamentally, Grimaldi understands the film's pulse, how its kinetics move from the visible to the internal. I kept wondering how much Moretti had helped with the directing. At least he must have agreed with it, shot by shot. Anyway, the result is a film that lingers, almost musically, within the viewer.
The Girl From Monaco sounds like the title of a farce. Well, this French film is a farce, but it is also a comedy of manners, as well as a drama with a jagged edge at the close. This mixture was purposefully designed. The screenplay by the director Anne Fontaine, aided by Benoit Graffin, was apparently intended as a typical "French film" modernized. Fontaine, a deft hand, tells us from the start that she wants her gambols, essentially from the past, to know which century they are gamboling in.
Take the opening minutes. A couple in evening dress are kissing at night in a palatial garden. He then woos her with a sophisticated line, which she enjoys, but she interrupts him to point out a man standing nearby who has been following them all evening. She asks her wooer, who is considerably older than she is, to speak to that man. He does, and he learns that the other man is a bodyguard who has been assigned to him, to follow him even when wooing.
This mature lover is a famous lawyer, Bertrand Beauvois, who is in Monaco to defend a woman accused of murder. The victim was a Russian, and the woman's son, a wealthy man, is afraid that Russian thugs will kill his mother's lawyer. The son has engaged this guard to protect Bertrand. (As for the girlfriend wooed at the opening, she simply leaves the picture, which tells us something about the previously ardent Bertrand.) Thus, in the first few minutes, sophisticated talk, farcical juxtaposition, and homicide are all deployed. By its very melange, this "French film" wants to be typical but up-to-cultural-date.
One more important person is added, Audrey, a weather girl from television who sets her cap--to put it politely--for Bertrand. (An echo here of Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two.) It is soon clear that, if there were a sexual Olympics, Audrey would be a contender in several events. Bertrand is quite conscious that he is being inveigled by her yet wants it to happen. The sexual musk is thickened by the fact that Bertrand's bodyguard, Christophe, had known Audrey intimately two years earlier. Through this fact and others, Christophe becomes as much Bertrand's guide as bodyguard.
Fontaine, a clever director, keeps her film highly mobile and well inflected: when darker moments come along in the general lightness, she accommodates them easily. Fabrice Luchini, a reliable actor, makes Bertrand a man who knows he is being a fool, has been foolish before, has handled it , and thinks he can do it again. Roschdy Zem, a hunk, is Christophe and provides several kinds of attractive weight. Louise Bourgoin--a dish, of course--breezes through as Audrey, with an air about her antics that has a hint of menace. Stephane Audran, lovely these many years, is regal as the alleged murderer on trial.
The picture ends with a triad: cruelty, generosity, and irony are interwoven. Remembering the lighter moments, we may possibly be surprised by the ending, but we really have no right to be: the other elements have been there throughout. The Girl From Monaco has continually threatened to be a bit more than fluff.
Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.