On Films: Examined Lives

by Stanley Kauffmann | February 25, 2002

The Italian film-maker Nanni Moretti has had a schismatic career. Almost unknown in America, he is a critical and public darling in Europe, a winner of festival prizes. Because he writes and directs and stars in his films and because his roles are generally quiet and thoughtful, and sometimes thoughtfully comic, he has been compared to Woody Allen. (No physical resemblance: Moretti is tall, slim, bearded, good-looking.) This is to compare George Gershwin with Stephen Sondheim simply because each wrote smart songs about contemporary life. For all the comic touches, Moretti's work is predominantly and uniquely serious. His continuing subject, in modes much deeper than Allen's occasional such forays, is himself.

Moretti began making films in 1973, when he was twenty; five years later he made Ecce Bombo, considered by many the prime European picture of its time about people of his age. It was a big success abroad, yet to my knowledge it was not released here. The first Moretti film to arrive was The Mass Is Ended, in 1985, which was sandbagged by New York critics. Therefore--a grim therefore-- it had few further American showings. For me, it is an important work. Moretti plays a priest in his early thirties, again just about his own age, who is transferred from a country church to his native city, Rome. Now he is a cleric amidst the people with whom he had gone to school and alongside his own troubled family. Burning with faith and with the knowledge that this very faith is dividing him from his family and his friends who do not share that faith so fully, the priest collides with the difficulties of religion in our day that were apparently troubling Moretti himself. Palombella Rossa (1989) was about the problems of a politically radical water-polo player. (Moretti was once on a national water-polo team.) In Caro Diario (1994), he actually appeared as himself, in a three-part film that dealt with his problems as a director and with a treatment for cancer that he underwent--successfully. I emphasize that the three Moretti films seen in this country are only a skim of his eighteen features and shorts. Now comes the nineteenth, The Son's Room (Miramax). Sensitively directed and engagingly cast, it continues Moretti's fictional/true autobiography. (Like the protagonist, Moretti is now a father. Heaven forfend that he ever undergo what his character undergoes, but he is now well able to imagine it.) The setting is Ancona, a small city on the Adriatic. Moretti plays a psychoanalyst named Giovanni (which is his own real first name), who has a busy practice, a wife, and a teenage son and daughter--a warm, closely knit family. For almost half of the film, we simply follow their lives. We know, because we are all well- trained filmgoers, that something disruptive is bound to happen, but, unlike ordinary movie carpenters, Moretti does not heavy-handedly set up cozy goodies in a row, patently predicting that they are going to be knocked down. Instead, he takes us along with the dailiness of living--interesting because of the truth of the people. Something else holds us, even, I think, if this is one's first time with Moretti. He presents a duality. He is quite credibly Giovanni, but, as he has been before, he is also Moretti, using the character as a way of exploring himself and the world. There is a very subtle touch of Brecht in this process, without any Brechtian contest between presentation and representation.

Moretti seems to be savoring the film, learning as much about it as we do while it goes along. Admittedly, this procedure lowers the emotional tone of his acting, but this is redressed by an appealing flavor--performance plus thoughtfulness. The expected disruption occurs, terribly. The son is drowned in a diving accident. The impact of the horror is all the more grueling because Moretti and his wife and daughter are people, not film characters with big scenes. The boy's room is left untouched, almost as a means of maintaining his presence. A further stab comes with a letter to the son from a girl unknown to the family, who met the son for just one day and writes to him in the hope that they will meet again. This touch is justified, and in an odd way verified, because a few months after the accident she visits the family, not disconsolate but with another boy with whom she is hitchhiking to France. This leads to a conclusion that, with gentle clarity, completes the film. The analyst and wife and daughter drive the hitchhikers to a place where they can more easily hitch a ride, but when they get there the hitchhikers are asleep in the back and Giovanni does not want to wake them. So they all drive all night to the west coast, where the traveling pair can get a bus for France. After the bus leaves, Giovanni and his wife suddenly trickle into laughter. The daughter, puzzled, asks them why they are laughing. They do not reply: they just keep on laughing. But we know why. They have learned that life is irresistibly, almost brutally, continuous. The hitchhiking girl has recovered from her attraction to their son and has found another boy. Giovanni and his wife have found, through this unintended all-night drive to the Ligurian sea, that they are still responsive to affection and hope. The death of their son has begun to become a fact of their lives that they will carry with them; but they will carry it with them, not halt. So they are laughing, bereaved yet at least partially liberated. We are left wondering whether, when they return home, they will keep the son's room as it was.

We can also wonder whether The Son's Room will raise Moretti's American status to something like his European level. As the phrase goes, it is to be hoped. William Shakespeare was at least fifty other people, according to various claimants. Each one of the fifty candidates is promoted as the real author of the plays, chiefly because the claimants disbelieve that a relatively unschooled glover's son from Stratford who became a minor actor in London and who never left England could possibly have been the author. One of the chief nominees for the laurel is Christopher Marlowe, and now there is a lively documentary on the Marlovian putsch. Much Ado About Something (Helpful Eye) was made by Michael Rubbo for Australian broadcast and is shown at the Film Forum in New York, where, with bright interviewees, brisk editing, clean photography, and good questions by the unseen Rubbo, it sparkles along. Clips from Shakespeare films season the mix nicely. The theory propounded here is that Marlowe (born the same year as Shakespeare) was not killed in a brawl in 1593, but that the brawl was a fake arranged to smuggle Marlowe out of the country for political reasons; that he fled to Italy, where he wrote plays that were then shipped back to England, transcribed by another hand, and attributed to a front, William S. The film presents a number of men and women, British and American, who have devoted their careers to this theory and written books to support it, and all of them are brimming with belief. Some dissent is offered, mostly from the fine Shakespearean critic Jonathan Bate. A credible opinion was well put--elsewhere--by George Wilbur Meyer of Tulane. "It is unlikely that Marlowe could have written Shakespeare's plays had he lived a thousand years.... But Shakespeare would have been different, at least for a time, had Marlowe not lived. Shakespeare knew that he had learned from Marlowe." My own view is: what difference does it make? As long as we have the works, what substantive difference does it make whose name is on the title page? Rubbo in fact asks this question of one of the Marlovians, whose answer is vociferous but evasive. But Rubbo's intelligent questions, his subjects' enthusiasm, and their occasional anger make for a crackling ninety-four minutes.

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