Son's Room, The (La Stanza del Figlio) (Italy, 2001) ***1/2
Directed by Nanni Moretti. Written by Linda Ferri, Nanni Moretti, Heidrun Schleef. Photography, Giuseppe Lanci. Editing, Esmeralda Calabria. Sets, Giancarlo Basili. Music: Nicola Piovani
Let me get personal; that is, ignore the standardized absence of the critic in film reviews. Many years ago, at the Cannes Festival, director-writer-producer-actor Nanni Moretti made his first appearance at the Cannes Film Festival with his feature "Ecce Bombo" (1978.) I was so taken with it that after a screening I went to Moretti and hugged him.
This was the first and last time I have ever hugged a stranger. And that's my review of "Ecce Bombo." Since then, true cinephiles have followed Moretti's movies with rapt attention and a great deal of pleasure and appreciation. The man is not just one of the major Italian filmmakers but one of the best anywhere. Yet the forced (by Hollywood) parochialism of the U.S.A public has resulted, in making of Moretti -and many other "foreigners"-what the French call "un celebre inconnu," a famous unknown.
He is in a class by himself, an independent, idiosyncratic "auteur" whose clever, witty, highly personal films -he appears in just about all of them-have made him the Italian equivalent of Woody Allen. However, if this comparison is useful critical shorthand, it is valid only on the superficial level of apples and oranges.
At the 2001 Cannes Festival "The Son's Room" won both the Golden Palm, the top prize, as well as the International Film Critics' award. Will this make Moretti a household name in America? The nut of our insularity is a hard one to crack.
This movie is Moretti's most openly "serious"-and a top addition to the small sub-genre of films about deaths of loved ones. Writer James Agee (1909-1955) was, arguably, the first legendary film critic in the U.S.A., as well as a scriptwriter. Among his novels, "A Death in the Family" won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize. Were Moretti an American he might well have dedicated his current film to Agee.
In a surprising switch from what I might call "serious lightness" to the pure drama of "The Son's Room" Moretti plays a happily married psychoanalyst with two very nice teenage kids, a boy and a girl. They have a good life in a medium-size Italian city by the sea. (I seem to have identified it as Ancona, on the Adriatic.) The group's life is quiet but not dull. Sports (as in Moretti's real life) are important. Events are interesting. Small misadventures pep up the story. Psychoanalyzed patients sometimes add humor to the profession. It is a very nicely observed ordinary life, not dull, not sentimentalized or cliché-ridden, yet so intelligently depicted that it connects with the film's viewers. And, as usual, observant filmmaker Moretti, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, can amuse and does, but without going for comedy.
Then, before the film has reached its mid-point, this solid, recognizable, likable edifice suddenly crumbles. The son dies in a diving accident. And the comfort on the screen as well as in the audience comes to a screeching stop. Death transforms radically the life of the survivors. The details of facts, of individual reactions, of the shattered unity, of physical, mental and moral changes are superbly observed and depicted. The movie proceeds with profound feeling yet it is, perhaps unexpectedly for those who associate vociferous mourning with the Italian people, amazingly quiet.
At some point, a form of mental-psychological recovery comes to the rescue. What it is and how this functions I will not reveal. I can only say that it is un-forced, imaginative yet entirely believable. The feelings and emotions on the screen are powerful. They do not , however, attempt the usual filmic devices of tugging at the audience's heart-strings. It all comes gradually and naturally leading to what is perhaps a closure, or at least the start of one. Do not miss this movie.