Reversal of fortune
Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti is hardly known in the U.S., and is best known in his own country as “Italy’s Woody Allen.” (That’s a misnomer, of course; there probably couldn’t be an “Italian” Woody Allen any more than there could be a Haitian Jerry Seinfeld.) Moretti’s kind of comedy is self-effacing and naturalistic, as far as you can get from the obnoxious, overbearing movies of Roberto Benigni. The difference between Moretti and Benigni is vividly illustrated by what happens when they move from comedy to drama. Benigni perpetrated the shameless Life Is Beautiful, while Moretti gives us The Son’s Room, a gentle, compassionate drama about grief and healing. Oddly enough, both films wound up winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Moretti plays Giovanni, a psychiatrist happily married to Paola (Laura Morante) and with two cheerful, well-adjusted teenage kids, daughter Irene (Jasmine Trinca) and son Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice). Giovanni spends his days listening to the troubles of his patients—one man recounts in excruciating details his long, complicated, incredibly boring dreams; a woman spends her hour talking about discontinuing her therapy, even though she and Giovanni both know she’ll be back next week; another man wrings his hands over his obsession with porn—then goes home to his family where they josh playfully over the dinner table. Even when Andrea gets in trouble at school (he’s accused of stealing a fossil from the science lab), nobody gets too upset about it; it’s as if they all, parents and sister alike, see it as no more than a little speed bump in what they’re sure will be a smooth and happy life.
The beauty of these opening scenes is the unforced ease of them; Moretti finds the rhythm of four interlocking, untroubled lives and lays it out for us. Movies tend to condition us with signs and omens. Sometimes the signs are obvious, even comical—think of the throbbing music in a slasher movie as some hapless victim ventures into that darkened room. Usually it’s more subtle, but movies often give us hints that something bad is on the way.
Giovanni’s family is indeed headed for tragedy—sudden and inexplicable, the sort of thing that just happens now and then to good people for no good reason. I knew it was coming because I read the early reviews (and because I paid attention to the title), but what’s most interesting and daring about the way Moretti handles it is that, for the sake of avoiding even a hint of melodrama, he willingly runs the risk of letting us think his movie isn’t going anywhere.
But it is. It’s going into that tormented, rueful, despairing world of grief, fluctuating between this-can’t-be-happening and could-we-start-again-please, and tinged with the savage, indignant anger of parents who have outlived one of their children. Giovanni eventually takes a break from his practice, mouthing platitudes about how he has to work out “issues” in his own life. But we see his reactions as his clients rattle on about themselves as if nothing had happened (for them, of course, it hasn’t). And we sense that it’s only his own innate decency that keeps him from exploding, shouting at them to shut up, for God’s sake, and quit bothering him with their stupid, trivial, insignificant so-called problems.
In time, Giovanni and Paola and their surviving child begin to jostle each other in their grief; the family’s rhythm has been disturbed and they can’t figure out how to get it back on track. They’re like a ceiling fan that begins to whine and rattle when one blade is put even slightly out of adjustment.
Moretti takes us through all this with offhand, subdued tenderness. There’s no sudden paroxysm of catharsis to remind us that this is only a movie. Giovanni and Paola become distant, but they don’t really clash; instead their family just drifts from day to day, and we begin subconsciously to wonder if they’ll regain their course. The film ends, literally and figuratively, with the dawn of a new day. It’s only in the relief of that ending that we realize how worried we were.