Reflecting on his life and work in 1975, critic and filmmaker François Truffaut wrote: “Today, I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in those films that do not pulse.”

That joy and that agony form the heart of Nanni Moretti’s latest comic drama, Mia Madre. Margherita Buy plays a filmmaker of the same name currently in production on a movie of social and political relevance—the workers of a Roman factory are striking against the factory and the new owner from America. American actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro) is brought in to play the role, but his Italian is spotty, and his skills are hammy at best. Though he thinks he is a great actor—frequently bringing up a story about working with Stanley Kubrick, a story that has questionable validity—Huggins quickly melts down and questions his career and life choices once he is faced with a frustrating line reading and the absurdity of driving a car while acting with three cameras in his face.

These scenes are great comedy, but as the title states, Mia Madre isn’t about Margherita as a director; it is about her as a daughter. In this case, a daughter facing the harsh reality of losing her mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), to old age. Her brother, Giovanni (Moretti), and her trade shifts at the hospital. At home, Margherita’s relationship is falling apart, while her teenage daughter predictably grows more distant. Margherita’s desire to control the world of the film, i.e., direct, is born out of a loss of control. Indeed, she dreams frequently, and those dreams bleed into the reality of the film.

Moretti and his team of writers—Valia Santella, Gaia Manzini, Chiara Valerio—balance their script with comedic scenes of the filmmaker struggling and the dramatic reality of losing a parent. Moretti is a kind and even-handed director, and he does not rely on large outbursts of emotional exasperation—though he comes close in one scene where Huggins cannot get through his lines at the factory commissary. Instead, characters in a Moretti movie walk solemnly with their hands clutched behind their backs or in their pockets. Their faces turned slightly to the ground in resignation but with a hint of a smile.

Mia Madre, which played the Cannes Film Festival last year, received a great amount of praise in the European circuit, and the French publication Cahiers du Cinema named it the best movie of 2015. High praise, but praise can sometimes be misleading. Moretti’s previous film, We Have a Pope (2012), was another quiet and humorous work, one with immense pathos that became evident days after watching it.

Mia Madre is the same. It may not look like a great work of art, but looks can be deceiving. It is quiet, kind, funny, and poignant. Only after the movie has been seen, digested, and lived with does one realize they saw something so wonderful.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mia Madre (2015)
Directed by: Nanni Moretti
Screenplay by: Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Valia Santella
Story by: Nanni Moretti, Valia Santella, Gaia Manzini, Chiara Valerio
Produced by: Nanni Moretti, Domenico Procacci
Starring: Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Giulia Lazzarini, Nanni Moretti, Beatrice Mancini
Music Box Films, Rated R, Running time 107 minutes, Opens September 2, 2016