A woman’s struggle to balance her career and family is well-trodden ground in narrative cinema, but “Mia Madre” goes beyond the surface to illustrate one woman’s own experiences in nuanced — albeit dull — detail.
The film centers on Margherita (Margherita Buy, “A Five Star Life”), a film director having difficulties shooting a film about labor rights while dealing with her distant relationships with loved ones. The driving force of the movie is her elderly mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini, “Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy”), who is being hospitalized and is slowly dying after pneumonia enlarged her already weak heart.
Though this sounds quite dramatic, the film buzzes around so many other people in Margherita’s life (her crew, her daughter and ex-husband, her new boyfriend) that it never gives Margherita time to truly share her feelings and let the viewer feel what’s going on inside her head during these difficult times. She’s too busy, no thanks to her American leading man Barry (John Turturro, “Barton Fink”) delivering his lines in bad Italian and accommodating Margherita’s firm directing decisions with unwanted interjections.
Barry’s first meeting with Margherita makes it clear that he’s an asshole. After being personally picked up by her from the airport late at night, he tries to sleep with her and then claims he’s joking when he’s rebuffed. This immediately establishes him as an unlikable character from the get-go. Though he doesn’t try anything that problematic for the rest of the movie, he does pull these “jokes” after making diva demands on set one too many times to be totally likable. Thankfully, Barry and the rest of the crew become more likable after respecting Margherita’s directorial choices to a fault and listening to her concerns about her mother. This not only adds depth to secondary characters, but gives Margherita a crucial sense of authority that avoids the stereotypical “bossiness” that might have been come across otherwise.
Unfortunately, the same technique is used to convey how Margherita conflicts with her family, with less effective results. Her family tells her she isn’t around enough and make her feel bad when they display a stronger connection to her mother. But the director is never shown choosing to film over spending time with her loved ones, making the true cause of their frosty relationship unclear. Plenty of people have a full plate at work, and as a result spend less time with their family than they would like. Is Margherita upset now because she didn’t consider the long-term consequences of living like this before? For such a dedicated woman, this seems unlikely. Since we only see what she can see, it’s impossible to understand the effect her busy work schedule has on those around her. There’s no way to tell how valid her family’s complaints of her distant relationship with them are.
Though the plot gets a little murky as it tries to incorporate the struggles of the many people who populate Margherita’s life, the pacing is swift and the actors are engaging. The focus of the movie could have been narrowed to give Margherita enough time to give meaning to what’s happening in her life. But it still manages to portray her existence realistically, giving her complexity and life, which is no easy feat.