"The Son's Room" is heartbreaking and not. Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes and a top contender for the best foreign language Oscar, it is a measured, decorous, at times pat film that manages to be quietly moving because it touches on something real.
Nanni Moretti, known in Italy for puckish investigations of modern life, such as "Caro Diario," that have led to comparisons to Woody Allen, not only directed this quite different film, he also co-wrote, co-produced and stars as well.
Moretti plays Giovanni, a psychiatrist in the small Italian town of Ancona, someone much more serious than his usual characters. He's a contented paterfamilias, thoroughly involved with his wife, Paola (Laura Morante), and their two teenage children, daughter Irene (Jasmine Trinca), a basketball player, and son Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice). Giovanni is introduced looking with fascination at dancing Hare Krishnas outside a cafe after his morning run. Their ability to live unencumbered in the moment turns out to be the opposite of the careful, deliberate way the therapist goes about his life and work.
Some of Giovanni's patients have amusing, exasperating problems and the most boring dreams, while others, like a man who fears he will turn into a child-molesting monster, have quite serious dilemmas. To them all, Giovanni gives a variant of the calming advice that will come back to haunt him: "We can't control our lives completely. We do what we can. Just take a more relaxed approach to life and the world."
"The Son's Room" spends as much time with the therapist's family as with his patients, especially with Andrea, the son Giovanni is often frustrated with, for reasons ranging from the boy's not playing competitively enough on the tennis court to being accused of stealing a fossil at school. These are small-potato difficulties, but they allow us to get to know Andrea, to feel comfortable with him around, to immerse us in his life.
Then, typically unexpectedly, the worst thing that can happen to a family happens to Giovanni's: a tragedy takes place, and in its somber, unhurried way, "The Son's Room" offers an affecting sense of how that would be.
The tragedy, it turns out, lays waste to everything it touches, and there's nothing that it doesn't touch. The family finds itself in emotional free-fall, in a situation without rules or guidance, where Giovanni can't begin to take his own good advice and his wife and daughter find the pain so deep they have to retreat into themselves if they are to survive at all.
Although Moretti is better at being serious than his earlier work would have you expect, he is still someone who acts at a remove, who tiptoes at the edge of deep emotion. So it falls to Morante, (seen in John Malkovich's "The Dancer Upstairs" at the Sundance Film Festival, co-starring with Javier Bardem) to provide the feeling center of "The Son's Room." Her despair as a mother, her uncertainty, her passion is what gives this film its life. When she cries, it is always for real.
What is not for real, unfortunately, and what undercuts so much of this film's good work, is Nicola Piovani's tinkly, sentimental score. It's music that's meant to be gently comforting, to force-feed emotions that the film should trust itself to generate on its own. By subversively reassuring us that, yes, there is hope, "The Son's Room" reveals itself as not as serious, not as rigorous as it would like to be. Music more glacial and less Italian but still moving, music by someone like Arvo Part, would have given this film its due.
Yet just when you despair most, just when a place of prominence is given to Brian Eno's soft-rock "By This River," "The Son's Room" regains its footing. A chance event raises the question of whether it is possible for life to reassert and rekindle itself, for life to, in effect, rescue life. It's here that the virtues of Moretti's determination not to overstate or overdo things are most evident. Even if "The Son's Room" did not totally trust itself before, it does now, when it counts.
MPAA rating: R, for language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: adult subject matter and some moments of sensuality.
'The Son's Room'
Nanni Moretti ...Giovanni
Laura Morante ...Paola
Jasmine Trinca ...Irene
Giuseppe Sanfelice ...Andrea
Sofia Vigliar ...Arianna
A Sacher Film-Bac Films--StudioCanal co-production, in collaboration with Rai Cinema and Tele+, released by Miramax Films. Director Nanni Moretti. Producers Angelo Barbagallo, Nanni Moretti. Screenplay Linda Ferri, Nanni Moretti, Heidrun Schleef. Cinematographer Giuseppe Lanci. Editor Esmeralda Calabria. Costumes Maria Rita Berbera. Music Nicola Piovani. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
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