An Italian Double Feature: Leopardi (2014) & My Mother (2015)

Over the course of the month of July I was in Italy for work, which is also why there were no posts during that month. A local movie theater in the town I was working in had a showing of films that had special success in the country over the previous year, and so some colleagues and I decided to check out a couple of the ones we thought sounded the most promising. Both won or were nominated for several David di Donatello awards (the equivalent of the Oscars in Italy) and were critically lauded. In addition, both movies had the higher likelihood of getting released in the United States, either due to subject matter, directors, and odds that these films could be Italy’s submission for best foreign feature to the academy come fall. In fact, both movies already have English titles and limited release dates, so some people will have the opportunity to see them, and they will probably be available on at least one streaming site in the future.

Leopardi (Il giovane favoloso)

Il giovane favoloso : Elio Germani e' Giacomo Leopardi a Pompei

Director: Mario Martone
Writers: Mario Martone & Ippolita Di Majo
Cinematographer: Renato Berta
Composer: Apparat
Cast: Elio Germano

The weirder and harder to follow for foreign audiences between the two movies, whose subject matter is also likely unfamiliar. The film is a biopic of the poet Giacomo Leopardi, one of Italy’s most lauded and famous nineteenth-century writers. Notoriously very sickly and eventually a hunchback, the film opens in a  familiar way tracing young Leopardi’s youth in his privileged but constricting life of nobility in the town of Recanati. Leopardi’s father was extremely strict, and enforced on his children a life of study with very few outlets and even less excursions outside of the walls of the home. For those familiar with the writer’s poetry in this section many allusions to popular themes of his are present: a doomed crush, the moon, activity outdoors that he can only observe from his window without the ability to participate. As soon, though, as Leopardi finds the strength to stand up to his father and venture out on his own the film takes a very bizarre turn, completely distancing itself from the more traditional styles of a biographical movie and turning into a bizarre fever-pitch of a film, verging on the fantastical and the hallucinogenic. The film also begins to uncomfortably and incongruously have scenes that can only be read as homoerotic, incestuous, and overtly sexual for no apparent reason. Already present in the first half, during the second part these allusions become so explicit and disquieting that the audience becomes distracted by the images and inferences (all of us who were watching the film together began discussing it amongst ourselves, and somewhat lost track of the actual story line). The main actor playing Leopardi, Elio Germano, does a very good job. Very reminiscent of the recent lauded performance by Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. Aside from that, though, the film read for all of us (well, one really liked it) as a bit of a disappointment and a bizarre way to tell the story of such an admired figure of the Italian canon.

My Mother (Mia madre)

my mother

Director: Nanni Moretti
Writers: Nanni Moretti, Valia Santella, Francesco Piccolo
Cinematographer: Arnaldo Catinari
Cast: Margherita Buy, Nanni Moretti, John Turturro

Some of Nanni Moretti’s movies are available on Netflix for instant view, and some of his films have won awards at the Cannes and Venice film festivals. He is definitely one of the most popular and prized Italian directors, yet his movies are very divisive, and people either love him or hate him. His latest movie is one that I absolutely adored. The story centers around Margherita (the great Margherita Buy), a Roman film director who is torn between her work life and the hospital where her mother is a resident and is very ill. As with most of his movies, Moretti appears in this one as well as Margherita’s brother Giovanni, the main caretaker of the sick mother and a source of guilt for the protagonist who feels spread too thin. The movie that Margherita is directing is a film about a labor union strike in a factory and its star is the very difficult American actor Barry Huggins. Barry is played by the very game John Turturro, who hams it up a bit – a welcome respite for the audience, for his presence in the movie allows for a bit of a distracting divertissement, for otherwise the movie would be probably too dark and hard to take. Interrupting the film from time to time are Margherita’s dreams and nightmares, causing the viewer to not always know if what is being shown is dream or reality until well after the scene is completed; an interesting stylistic choice that I quite liked, but that frustrated others that saw the movie with me. Ultimately, the film is about Margherita, her inability to let people in, her difficulties with coping with life’s curveballs, and the grander themes of life, death, and actually living. In its simplicity the movie is profound and beautiful, and I hope that subtitles don’t scare people away from watching the great movie. And hey… John Turturro is really good in it!


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