Not long after I began university, my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. Almost everyone has to one day deal with the mortality of their parents and, like almost everyone, I dealt with it terribly. I slid right into the ‘denial’ phase and never really left; rather than do the logical thing and try and spend as much time with my mum as possible, I instead created a fictional world where I didn’t have to think about it because it wasn’t happening. Despite living only a couple hours from my parents, I contacted them rarely and thought about them about as often.
As a coping mechanism, it was entirely ineffective. It’s probably no surprise that this chapter of my life was plagued by depression. But, if Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre is anything to go by, I’m hardly the only person to approach the illness of a parent in such a misguided way. Mia Madre centres on Margherita (Margherita Buy), a film director struggling to cope with a troubled production, a difficult star (John Turturro) and an ailing mother (Giulia Lazzarini). It’s a deeply personal film – Moretti, who co-stars in the film as Margherita’s brother, recently lost his own mother – but the way it balances the challenges of Margherita’s day-job with the challenge of reconciling herself with the reality of her terminally ill mother struck a personal chord with me.
The film production – which takes up a large chunk of Mia Madre’s runtime – is very much about the real problems facing a director. How to balance the political and the personal at a narrative level, how to cope with an actor who can’t seem to learn his lines and, most importantly, how to balance professional obligations with personal ones (the latter brought into sharp focus late in the film, with Margherita’s mother taking a turn for the worst as the film’s most critical scene is being shot). It’s about finding room for the grief of childhood alongside the responsibilities of adulthood. But it’s also about the construction of an adjacent fiction to the unpleasant realities of one’s life. Margherita’s film is a story that has nothing to do with death; it represents a diversion – or even an escape – from her mother’s bedside.
Moretti signals this with Mia Madre’s unconventional, oneiric editing style. The film is spotted with infrequent dream sequences that provide a glimpse into Margherita’s psyche, but these are never clearly demarcated as such. The gentle editing rhythms lend a sense of ambiguous unease to the story; we’re never quite sure if we’re watching reality, or a simulacrum of it. But, just as my attempts at compartmentalisation resulted in spurts of depressive negativity, Margherita’s attempts to cordon off her professional life from her personal life are wrought with problems. This is realised most vividly when her apartment’s water bursts; an unmistakable metaphor for the inability to hold back grief’s pressure.
I found Mia Madre’s conclusion unconvincing. It’s understandable that Moretti is never quite able to render a convincing portrait of Margherita’s mother; this is yet another layer of fiction – a personal take on its director’s own loss – so it follows that it will be somewhat masked, obfuscated. But the climactic reaching for pathos feels disingenuous, particularly when the final minutes emphasise the legacy of Margherita’s mother – the books she’s written, the students she’s taught. It comes across as a thin salve for the raw grief, an attempt to rationalise away something irrational.
Though, maybe that sort of reassuring fiction is necessary. My mum survived her first experience with breast cancer a decade ago, only for it to return recently. I’ve tried to be a better son this time; not to pretend that it isn’t happening, but to engage with maturity. To visit more often, to talk more often. But still, when we talk, we don’t tend to talk about the cancer, not directly. We talk about school and work and holidays; we weave a fiction together where everything’s okay. Perhaps that’s all you can really do.