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'Mia Madre' is a movie no American could have made

There is no way Nanni Moretti's "Mia Madre" ("My Mother") could have been made in this country.

It is, for one thing, not about a 70-something former film siren a la Catherine Deneuve but a 50-something intellectual film director named Margherita afflicted with self-doubt. Her film specialty is social consciousness; how could she not be afflicted with doubt, even in Italy.

Nor does that even begin to be all. We have only just begun to touch on all the things the American film business - even the gutsy independent branch of it - wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole.

What our beleaguered director is undergoing is one of those periods during which life seems to present chaos and misery at every turn. She and her boyfriend have parted - and not especially well either. Her mother is in the hospital dying of degenerative heart disease. Her mother was a Latin teacher. One whole wall of her apartment is a bookcase full of Lucretius and Tacitus. Her major complaint about being in the hospital is "I'm getting dumber staying here."

She hasn't been told she is dying. All she knows is that her brain is failing her in so many ways (including minor strokes, which no one ever names). Margherita finds it impossible to tell herself how dire her mother's condition is. These people can find four or five different kinds of denial whenever they wake up in the morning.

Margherita's daughter, Livia, is on a ski vacation with her ex-husband. Not only does Livia want to stop taking Latin, no matter how much she loves her Grandma, but she too has just broken up with a high school boyfriend. Her mother didn't even know that boyfriend existed. She had to be informed by the girl's dying grandmother.

And in the middle of all this domestic collapse, making the film watchable are our glimpses of scenes from the film Margherita is making. The star of it is an obnoxious American actor named Barry Huggins who claims to have made a film with Kubrick (he didn't) and likes getting drunk at mealtime and shouting his desire to go to the Via Veneto. When he wakes up from a nap, he announces he dreamed Kevin Spacey tried to kill him.

When it's time for him to do his scenes, the American actor has trouble remembering his lines - not minor passing troubles but big troubles which put a whole set worth of actors, technicians and extras on edge. Just when you think he couldn't be a grander comic idiot if he tried, we get a typical twist from director Nanni Moretti learn that there is definitely something sympathetic  about our American acting buffoon after all.

The good news is that he's played by John Turturro, the great American actor who truly seems to be coming into his own as an actor these days. He was the making of HBO's series "The Night Of" (which he joined when James Gandolfini died) and he is the bolt of color amid all the darker shades of "Mia Madre." The performance by Margherita Buy as Margherita, the director, is a subtly shaded one that tells you how deeply intellectuals would rather not have to feel if they can avoid it.

Moretti is a lovely humanist filmmaker who has never shied away from disease and mortality. The film is affecting. I wish to heaven Moretti  hadn't portrayed Margherita as being so unworldly that she doesn't know what a tracheotomy is. (Say what? An experienced filmmaker who is ignorant of medical procedures? In a pig's eye.)

I wish the ending had been more graceful and less cliched. But it is progressively more affecting as it goes along. And for Turturro fans (I'm one of them), it's a must.


"Mia Madre"

3 stars (out of four)

Starring: Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Nanni Moretti.

Director: Nanni Moretti

Running time: 106 minutes.

Rating: R for language.

The Lowdown: A middle-aged Italian filmmaker finds her life falling apart. In Italian with subtitles.

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