With his latest film, La Stanza del Figlio (The Son’s Room), winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes, it might seem that Italian director-actor Nanni Moretti has traded outsider status for a safe seat in the auteur pantheon. A tragicomedy about family bereavement, The Son’s Room is the thinking person’s tearjerker. It’s also a more or less conventional linear narrative, and it finds Moretti playing a distinct role (husband, father, and psychoanalyst) rather than one of the nervy self-portraits featured in his fragmentary cine-journals Caro Diario (Dear Diary) and Aprile.
Maybe we can expect headlines reading “Italian Cinema’s Eternal Student Grows Up”—but then, Moretti’s career has been one long growing-up process. And unlike Woody Allen, to whom he’s often compared, Moretti does indeed mature over the course of his career, albeit painfully and with a streak of late-adolescent narcissism. If Moretti has now cast himself as a well-heeled family man, his middle age is hard-earned and anything but complacent.
Born in Brunico in the Dolomites in 1953, Moretti was just old enough to be part of Europe’s insurgent Class of ’68, and by the time he started making Super 8s in the early ’70s, that generation’s disillusionment was already his major subject. His first features Io Sono un Autoarchico (I Am Self-Sufficient, 1976) and Ecce Bombo (1978) establish Moretti’s alter ego, Michele Apicella, a narcissistic, talked-out former activist. Michele is not so much a conventional comic persona as Moretti’s own Antoine Doinel figure, a living work in progress whose agonized development is charted over the years. Michele and his various avatars are, you might say, the alter ego of Moretti’s generation. The director’s persona switches from role to role: a neurotic schoolteacher at the excruciatingly hip Scuola Marilyn Monroe in Bianca (1983); a Fellini-esque director-in-crisis in Sogni d’Oro (Sweet Dreams, 1981), trying to make a film about Freud’s mother while tackling his own oedipal panic; a priest in La Messa è Finita (The Mass Is Ended, 1985), watching his friends abandon radical dreams while Italy abandons its reverence for the Church.
Moretti is a far drier social satirist than you usually expect from Italian cinema—a sardonic, often dandyishly highbrow commentator and newswatcher. Remarkably, the films that have brought Moretti international recognition are narratively unconventional, as well as being specifically about Italian culture. In the bizarre Palombella Rossa (Red Lob, 1990), Moretti is a Communist politician trying to play water polo as the match itself becomes an allegory for the troubled fortunes of the party. (Raul Ruiz fans: Watch out for his cameo as a theologian.) Caro Diario (1994) is an impressionistic triptych of essay-episodes, in which Moretti ponders the emptiness of Rome in summer, the killing of Pasolini, and his own course of chemotherapy. The similarly structured, minor-key Aprile (1998) combines the self-absorption of a prospective father with an attempt to make a documentary about right-wing electioneering—a conflict resolved in a fabulously comic image of Moretti and baby son adrift on a carpet of newsprint.
But as with Godard, everything in Moretti’s world gravitates toward an obsession with cinema. The ultimate escape from his political and personal impasse in Aprile is to realize his dream project, a musical about a Communist baker—which provides a feel-good ending like no other. Recent films have had Moretti sobbing at Doctor Zhivago, dancing along with Silvana Mangano on TV, taunting critics at their bedsides over their reviews of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and buttonholing Jennifer Beals to tell her how Flashdance changed his life. In the short Opening Day of “Close-Up,” Moretti tells us where his cinematic allegiances really lie: The owner of his own art-house theater in Rome, Moretti shows himself and his staff gamely struggling to support a Kiarostami release against overwhelming competition from The Lion King. All of which rather dispels the fear that Moretti might ever go the mainstream, crowd-pleasing route of his diametrical opposite, Roberto Benigni. In any case, we shouldn’t rule out that his next film will be another diary piece—with Berlusconi back at the helm in Italy, Moretti’s tortured radical has plenty to rail against.