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“I don’t presume to know the taste of the public,” Nanni Moretti once declared when he was challenged onstage to defend his highly personal, at times willfully naive, approach to filmmaking. “I come from the groping-in-the-dark school.” The Italian director‘s idiosyncratic methods have been loudly ratified in recent weeks. The Son’s Room -- his newest film, and the kickoff to a retrospective at the American Cinematheque -- arrives fresh from winning the Palme d‘Or at this year’s Cannes film festival. Moretti‘s work may be largely unknown in this country, but to see it in bulk is to readily understand why he is being so honored.
Up to this point, Moretti has mostly enjoyed a cult following in his native country. From the early 1970s, when his first Super-8 shorts were a hit with Roman cinema clubs, to this latest success, the 47-year-old Moretti has not only written and directed, but played the lead in each of his films -- most often as Michele Apicella, a resilient alter ego in the tradition of Chaplin’s and Keaton‘s. Wherever Michele turns up, he enters ready for fresh adventure. He jousts with inner and outer demons as an a arrogant young filmmaker in Sweet Dreams (1981); melts down as an impatient teacher working in a surreally progressive high school in Bianca (1984); suffers memory loss in Palombella Rossa (1989), a film in which he has to be repeatedly reminded, after suffering a blow to his head, that he is an ardent communist. Moretti, himself a committed leftist, self-mockingly climaxes this satiric parable with a poolside screening of the ending of Dr. Zhivago, whose romantic take on communism implies a very different memory loss.
Moretti’s directorial style is matter-of-fact. There are no flashy camera moves, only energetic cuts. Born in 1953, just as a wave of Italian geniuses were cresting to international prominence, he positions himself in rebellion against such high-performance cosmopolitans as Fellini and Antonioni. Instead he embraces the earthier natures of Rossellini and Pasolini, while dangerously emulating Pasolini‘s poetic self-regard, which has led some critics to dismiss Moretti as a narcissist. With his beaky face and gentle, lively eyes, he holds a close-up well -- moving the Tavianis to cast him in their Padre Padrone (1977) -- and while the narcissism is unmistakable in the earlier work, it’s a demon he exorcises as he matures. It might be more truthful to classify him as a spiritualized standup comedian whose humor is, like Jerry Seinfeld‘s, “observational.” In any given film Moretti will focus on his character’s efforts to get to sleep, eat a sacher torte or escape a talkative bore as intensely as he seeks the truth or falls in love.
In The Mass Is Ended (1986), Moretti jettisons “Michele” for the first time to inhabit a fully realized fictional character -- Father Giulio, a young pastor marooned in a dying parish. In Robert Bresson‘s Diary of a Country Priest, it was the priest who was dying. By reversing this, Moretti playfully maps how far the priesthood and the world have fallen. His visual style deepens in tandem with his thematic inventiveness: When Giulio goes to see a jailed comrade from his leftist youth, the convict’s neck and shoulders are reflected in the glass of the visiting room in such a way as to be directly imposed over the priest‘s collar and cassock, like an X-ray showing the man he might have been. Later, loafing with his grown sister at their parents’ apartment, the priest romps about in full clerical dress, bouncing a little ball off the walls and -- in a sophomoric tease -- off the forehead of his father, who doesn‘t react. For all his high-minded renunciation of the world and its temptations, the priest has yet to renounce his own innocence.
Moretti creates this flawed, even irritating character with such a balance of sympathy and detachment that when he comes back to more direct self-portraits, as in Caro Diario (Dear Diary, 1993), he does so with greater confidence and skill. His inclusion of himself in whatever landscape is under scrutiny feels less like narcissism and more like honesty of perspective. He’s not posing at center stage to show off but to be of service, using himself as a stand-in for all selves. Whether he‘s leading us on a haunting motorcycle ride to the spot where Pasolini was murdered or retracing the steps of Rossellini across the spectacular volcanic island of Stromboli, Moretti’s attention is increasingly directed away from himself and outward toward the world. He‘s not merely hero worshipping or locating himself in the traditions of Italian cinema, but giving us an altogether fresh glimpse at the realities that created these masters, and himself.
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