It’s fashionable at this time in Italy to talk about cinematographic genre, to talk about those who create a genre of their own. This can provoke interesting conversations. Nanni Moretti has been making movies for over 40 years. Through these films, he has narrated, in his own unmistakable voice, his evolution as a human, as a man, as an Italian coming of age in years of politics in public squares and terrorism, a “splendid forty-something” in the years of middle-class bourgeoisie affluence, and the bitter leftist in the early years of Berlusconian politics. In these recent years, Moretti has moved to more intimate stories, where the personal dominates over the social.
In the early ’70s, soon after graduating from high school (that focused on the humanities), he picked up a movie camera for the first time to tape his first odd shorts in Super-8. His first full-length feature, I Am an Autarchic, was filmed in 1976 and is today a trans-generational socio-political manifesto, just as his next film, Ecce Bombo (1978), is now an education for left-wing Italians.
Sitting in an armchair in the office of the Director of the Italian Institute of Culture, he does not seem that different from the youngster chasing after the soccer ball in The Mass is Ended. I’m almost afraid that from one moment to the next, he’ll run off shouting “ball!”. Instead, he doesn’t run and he grants me a long chat about his career, the one he chose and the one that came along by happenstance, among comedy, reflection and politics. And we talk about his latest film, My Mother, arriving to American movie theatres in August, in which he examines the passing of his mother, just a few years ago. Nanni Moretti arrived to New York to give voice to another mother: invited by the Director the Italian Cultural Institute, Giorgio van Straten, on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of Natalia Ginzburg, Moretti read passages from the epistolary novel Caro Michele, letters written by a mother to her young son.
Nanni Moretti reads Natalia Ginzburg. Why is that?
“She is a writer that I discovered a few years after I finished school and who, I’m not saying was undervalued in her day, but she suffered under the huge weight of her contemporary, Elsa Morante. Perhaps critics appreciated her less than they could have. What strikes me most is her simplicity, it’s not a point of departure but a point of arrival. A simplicity that was not casual, not trivial in her writing, it’s the painful humanity of her style. This is a novel to which I am particularly tied; and I also watched the film Monicelli made forty years ago. And recently I recorded an audiobook. For this, with the Institute, we decided to pay homage to her on the 100th anniversary of her birth.”
In her letters to Michele, there always seems to be a sort of estrangement suffered by the mother with respect to her son’s life, as if she was always excluded. Your last film deals with a relationship with a mother, your mother. Do you believe this estrangement is an innate condition in the role and of the mother figure?
“No, I think it’s specific to the character, of that story, that specific book. If anything, for me, as a son, it was sort of the opposite. My mother taught all her life and after her death, through the stories of her former students, I felt like I was discovering things about my mother that I hadn’t properly understood. And this is a very odd feeling to have: to learn about your mother from the stories of others. Sometimes it happens that we are very close to a person yet being so close we’re unable to experience the totality of that person.”
Did you ever think that this maybe could also have happened to your mother, that watching your movies, she perhaps learned about her son in his films?
“Nah, I don’t agree… oh, my, I don’t know… that is, I was too secretive, definitely, with my parents as it wasn’t in me to talk about things. So if I think about it now, maybe… could be, because I spoke very little about my private life. And so, yes, in the autobiography that my movies have been, I maybe revealed something about myself that I usually didn’t talk about.”
Does the mother-son and mother-daughter relationship that is central to your film appear to have elements that can be considered typically Italian or is it universal?
“As Italian spectators, we watched any American film that wasn’t universal and made it became universal for us; the American imagination is somewhat the imagination of spectators worldwide. So, even if on the one hand we watched a lot of very New York or very local movies, we compelled ourselves to see them as universal. My film doesn’t, I think, have those elements that are typically or solely Italian. I was interested in telling the story of three women. Three generations. Not only the story of Margherita, an extraordinary performance by Margherita Buy, but also that of her mother and her daughter. I wanted there to be a passing of the torch from one generation to the next. The relationship between mother and daughter is always more complex: the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter is more transparent, less opaque, it’s established quickly. I also like this passing of the torch between grandmother and granddaughter, for example with studying Latin. The grandmother knows that this girl had been in love just a few months earlier, something Margherita wasn’t even aware of. The grandmother-granddaughter relationship is direct and bypasses Margherita’s character who is oblivious to some things: Margherita is so absorbed by her work, which is all-consuming for her. Maybe I attributed to her behavior that which is generally assigned to male characters: the all-consuming ties to work, the way in which she dissolves her relationship with her temporary boyfriend, and the bother that is caused her by caring for her mother. A female character generally is more nurturing, more comforting. Margherita feels she has, and truly does have, an inadequate relationship with her mother. I, as a person, am more closer to the Margherita character than I am to the role that I play in the film: I’ve entrusted to her much of me.”
Of course, it has been said that Margherita is your female alter ego…
“Yes, absolutely so! In fact, when we ran through the scenes where she gets mad on the set, Margherita Buy was using a tone that was all too familiar to me, even when she was pissed off, that too winded up being familiar. And then I realized that there was in effect a tone that she was imitating… it was the tone that every once and awhile I used to use on the set and that Margherita improved and reproduced in her character.”
The role instead played by John Turturro, this exuberant and a tad maniacal American actor, what does it mean in the economy of the story?
“I wanted Margherita, who feels uncomfortable and pained by her mother’s illness, and often has problems with misunderstandings, to also have work issues. And then if I think a little about the tone of the film, it’s something that often happens to me, narrating a story that alternates comical moments with dramatic ones. I don’t sit there and try to calculate a distribution: like there will be 70% drama and 30% comedy. It’s the way I’ve always imagined the stories that I’ve wanted to tell. Stories where there is pain but maybe this pain, this discomfort, are sometimes told with a touch of irony too. It’s been my way of narrating stories for over 40 years.”
Is John Turturro’s line shouted at a certain point during the shooting of the film “Bring me back to reality!” a reflection of the experience of suffering that Margherita is living?
“If I need to be honest, that scene was a tad overdone and actually occurred during a long night of shooting, when an extremely tired Michel Piccoli blew up during takes of We Have a Pope: I took those lines from his rant against everything and everyone. I happen to have dialogues while the screenplay is not yet finished. But I already know that there are some characters or dialogues or scenes that I want in my next film. It’s not very professional: it’s a little primitive and a very demanding way to work. At times I come up with parts of a screenplay before the actual subject. Sometimes they’re coherent and I keep them. Other times they have no place so I exclude them. That was a scene that I had jotted down and then decided to attribute it to Turturro’s character there. But then it so happens that there are scenes in the film, quote-unquote, by chance, but then within the film they are coherent, congruent with the rest of the movie. And I see that for example, Turturro’s line hit home.”
You’ve already spoken of loss in The Son’s Room…
“They’re different types of losses. And I tell the stories differently. The loss of a son is the most unnatural loss there is and I examine it as a sudden and absolute unjust event. But instead Margherita and Giovanni in My Mother know, as do the spectators of my film, that her end is inevitable, and they start to get used to it. It’s something with which they begin to familiarize themselves, then they think they’re ready for it, but they never really are. However, the loss of a parent is part of the natural order of things. Yet we have the death of a boy in The Son’s Room that splits the move in two.”
You have played both the father who loses a son and a son who loses a mother. What was that like?
“There something unsaid in the screenplay that I consider implicit, and that the parents of The Son’s Room and the children of My Mother have in common: these characters don’t believe in an afterlife, they aren’t believers. This is a fact that makes these two stories even more raw, and the loss of a loved one more harsh. The Son’s Room left me feeling something that I had never felt before in my films: saturated with the grief that I was narrating. Years earlier with Dear Diary, I told my story about a tumor that I had had and relived it in its entirety, but it wasn’t psychologically difficult to tell that story. I was a director doing his job and it didn’t any affect on me to examine years later an illness that was serious. For the first time in The Son’s Room I was saturated. And I think that it also happened a little with My Mother, even if I don’t realize it to the fullest. With My Mother, I wanted my acting and my directing to be hidden at the service of the story that I wanted to tell. I did not, neither as an actor nor as a director, want it to be a muscle contest nor a competition of style: I did not want to be the lead. Rather, I wanted my style to service that story, that humanity, those characters, characters that I’m inclined to call people.”
Do you like to act?
“I like it better when I only act because I can be more focused on only that. Thirty or forty years ago, I considered it natural to put those two things together. I thought my films made sense because I simultaneously covered all three of these roles: screenwriter for me, director of me, and actor in my films. I didn’t think I was neither a screenwriter nor an actor nor a director by trade, but I did think that taking on all three roles at the same time I could create a personal cinema. Now I have not changed my mind, but I do feel that this topic can change and that I can be an actor in films that are not my own, and direct a film in which I don’t act, or as a screenwriter be useful to other directors. This interaction between and confusion of roles perhaps now is separating a little.”
Your films have narrated your entire life to some degree. Do you see it as a path, and if so, is it generational or yours, individual?
“This is where I have changed my mind. When thirty years ago they told me that my films successfully spoke to a generation, I was a tad intolerant because I would say: how is this a sociological question. Why don’t we speak of style, of the cinematography of my films? I found it reductive. I’ve changed my mind. If that indeed was true, that I was able to, starting from me, to tell the stories of others, I am very honored and I feel good about it. Before it agitated me, now I’m proud of it. It was not calculated: fortunately, my antennae were sensitive, more sensitive than they are now.”
Then there are those one-liners, one of the greatest “I do things, I see people,” were prophetic and ended up representing another generation, mine…
“It happened naturally. I picked up lines and trends that automatically ended up in my screenplay totally unaware to me; it wasn’t planned. You quoted Ecce Bombo: I thought of everything making that film except that, forty years later, young people who weren’t yet born would quote from it. This has surprised me greatly.”
I’m surprised that there wasn’t a sociological intent, because a film like Ecce Bombo seems to be a sociological essay…
“I remember a super private screening of it with my producer and editor. We weren’t thinking that it would have become such a hit. The producer told me that he became fond of that film the same way one does of those more troubled, unlucky kids. I thought I had made a sad movie about a circumscribed world. I hadn’t talked about youngsters: I had examined a specific group, middle class Romans, rather a very specific area of Rome, North Rome, rather a specific neighborhood which was Prati-Della Vittoria. What’s more is that they were leftist, rather the far-left, actually far-left but no longer militant, who left active politics and created this male self-support group. This was something even more rare, almost inexistent, which instead was a practice of the feminist movement. And truth be told, it was something I had done just a few years prior. It was the only time I was on the cutting edge in my life.
Was your group as comical as the one in the film?
“I had taken it quite seriously and would share my business, in a way that was a little dumb, I would talk about private stuff. They instead had used it to talk a little more about external matters, their relationship with politics.
In the movie, it was very funny.
“I thought that I had made a heartbreaking movie for a limited audience. Then I realized that I had made a comedy for everyone and because of this there was this quest for identification. There were some of my friends who had seen the movies in its opening days and they were amazed: we were a generation that usually took things quite seriously and we were described about in the newspapers as being very dogmatic. During those first days, my friends told me they liked the film. After a few weeks, they were dubious. When I asked why, they replied: ‘well, you know, because my parents saw it and they liked it too and this doesn’t feel right.’ I had not expected that people who were very distant in age, social class, political ideas, would see themselves in this film. This though was my good fortune because thanks to this film, I was able to make others. The previous film [I Am an Autarchic] was only a hit in the cineclub circuit. But one thing I will claim is the passage from cineclub to real movie theatre, the passage from an audience that defined itself as elite to a mainstream audience, I had not thought about having to accommodate this new audience. I continued, if I had a cinematographic style, it was the style I had when began with Super-8 film, with that type of irony.”
So the comedy is somewhat involuntary then. Do you consider yourself a fun person?
“Absolutely not. Actually I’m quite glum. But from the beginning, when I made my shorts in Super-8, I always exorcised my awkwardness, my neurosis and my tics using irony. It’s always been a tool of knowledge, of storytelling.”
Do you come to New York often? Do you like it?
“It has a vitality that Italy doesn’t have, or doesn’t have any longer, or doesn’t yet have. If I come to New York then I think of Italy as lazy, with thick and flabby body, slow and too soft. Coming here, I am happily contaminated by its vitality.
“Central Park, without a doubt.”
Do you have a New York equivalent to Sacher cake?
“No, I have to say no.”
[I recommend Veniero’s cheesecake]
What is Italy like today? In a few words, how would you define it?
“I hope I’m wrong but it seems to be a little weary and resigned, but sincerely, truly, I hope I’m wrong. I think it’s not just a coincidence that all our children are studying abroad. I don’t believe it’s a whim, nor a coincidence.”
Is that phase of political activism that you experienced firsthand over in your life? Has it been archived?
I’ve always had an intermittent relationship with politics, even in the decades prior to my commitment to Girotondi [the Girotondi was a political movement started by Nanni Moretti at the beginning of 2000]. There have been moments that have marked me, two come quickly to mind: Berlinguer’s death and Moro’s time in captivity. So there’s a need to return to those years [those of firsthand political activism with the Girotondi], because it was truly an exceptional emergency situation. With Berlusconi heading the government, there were too many anomalies for a democratic country. I recall that when I was being interviewed at that time, especially by French journalists, and they asked me about the role of the intellectual―besides the fact I don’t consider myself an intellectual, I’m only a director―I felt obliged to let my voice be heard, not because I considered it my duty as an intellectual or a director, but as a citizen. I reversed the usual trend when the name of a famous person is used to support political parties, I wanted to use my name and the fact that I’m somewhat known, to protest without messy slogans, but cheerful protests. I wanted to pick my battles, for those I care that I strongly about. That was a precisely an exceptional situation. Those who today draw comparisons between Berlusconi and Renzi haven’t understood Silvio Berlusconi’s political adventure in Italy.
At the present time, then, is it your opinion that such a commitment is not required?
“I read somewhere an article that said ‘Moretti and other intellectuals embarrassed, fall silent on the Renzi government’ … but I’m silent because I have nothing to say. I also fell silent on the Letta government, the Dini government and the D’Alema government.”
Well, actually on D’Alema no. “D’Alema say something left-wing!” went down in history.
“On D’Alema no, true. But I’m not at all embarrassed: I don’t always need to give my opinion on everything. Sometimes it happens that if you’re a person who’s somewhat known, plus I was also active and present firsthand in the past, then it seems that you’re authorized or even obligated to give your opinion on everything. But that’s not how it works for me.”
Are words still important to Nanni Moretti?
“Undoubtedly. But, there is jargon, buzz words that are useful yet I choose to be straightforward and not use them, I don’t beat around the bush. ‘Kneeing’ that was used a lot, seemed to be a way to sugarcoat the actual action. Abbreviating The Red Brigade to BR [for Brigate Rosse] rendered this dangerous phenomenon too familiar. Or I also never used “farsi una pera”[lit. to have a pear, stays for shooting up], an expression for drug use that neutralizes the tragic act. So like today, words are important and I have to make sure I don’t beat around the bush.”
Translation by: Enza Antenos