Readers please note: this review gives some of the film’s plot away.
The winner of the Palme D’Or at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, The Son’s Room (Nanni Moretti, 2001) seems to be the perfect Miramax release: a classically composed European film about a subject – the death of a child – that will have universal appeal to film goers around the world. The specifics of its Italian setting are almost indistinguishable from a New England suburb. Released in the wake of September 11, its portrayal of grief seems more relevant than other sensations at Cannes like Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) or The Pianist (Michael Haneke, 2001) (which snared no less than three prizes). However, in spite of its seemingly middlebrow appeal, The Son’s Room is as formally ambitious as the Lynch and Haneke films. Whether it succeeds in its ambitions is another thing altogether.
Writer/director/actor, Nanni Moretti, plays Giovanni, a successful psychiatrist, married to Paola (Laura Morante). They have two teenage children, a son and daughter, who are energetic, healthy, witty, and loving. The ripples on this pond of domesticity come in the form of Giovanni’s sublimated resentment of his patients. Their respective sessions with Giovanni empathize their pathetic quality. One patient never speaks. Another complains about everything. One woman is an obsessive compulsive. The scariest is a sex addict whose lust seems on the verge of mutating into murder.
In sharp contrast to this band of neurotics, Giovanni’s family life is one of comforting routine – visits to the cinema, jogging with his son, watching his daughter play basketball, starting a sing along in the car, and playful chatter at dinner time. When the son is accused along with another boy of stealing a teacher’s fossil at school, Giovanni expends a rather unnecessary amount of hand wringing over what will quickly seem like a fairly harmless adolescent prank. Of course, this is the problem with the hermetic nature of domestic bliss – it creates an unreal scale of expectation and response. When the harmony is suddenly disrupted, the shock seems all the more devastating.
When the son dies in a diving accident, the ordered world of Giovanni, his wife and daughter collapses under the force of the tragedy. The daughter becomes increasingly moody. Paola withdraws. Giovanni tries to return to his practice, but has lost all patience with his clients. The son’s room of the title is now empty and its occupant will never come back. The family is united only by its awareness of this terrible absence. The respective degrees of their pain threaten to torment and overwhelm them forever.
I hesitate to detail much of the film’s third act that depends heavily on the discovery of a letter written by one of the son’s past girlfriends. Where the first two thirds of the film occasionally veer too close to Ordinary People territory, this third section, which demands that the father, mother, and daughter put on a polite face for their first real family outing since the son’s funeral, depicts the family’s tentative movements towards acceptance with grace, irony, and gentle humor. These deftly handled scenes, reminiscent of a humanism that is rare in contemporary European art cinema, tipped the balance for the Cannes jury.
The Son’s Room is shot with a deliberate lack of visual flourish. What little burst of color disturbs the IKEA landscapes that make up Giovanni’s world is a consequence of location rather than design. In a sharp break with the comedies and essay films he is known for (most notably Caro Diario ), Moretti strives for a matter-of-fact realism in The Son’s Room that becomes as hard not to notice as the self-consciousness and autobiographical content of his previous work.
In fact, it is hard not to think of “chamber piece” or “well-made play” when coming away from Moretti’s film. The emotions that Moretti wishes to explore are sincerely dealt with, but in wanting so much to break away from what he is known for and play a seemingly typical bourgeois character, the film becomes almost a case study. And as hard as Moretti has tried to create an ensemble in casting the film, it is Giovanni’s turmoil that gets the most screen time. Even the son of the title is essentially an ideal rather than a fully realized character.
As in the aforementioned Ordinary People, the characters are stereotypically middle class. This is a film that for all its blank slate realism is curiously short on specifics (except for the odd bit of weirdness such as when Giovanni buys an Eno record as a birthday present). Unlike first time director Todd Field’s In The Bedroom (2001), a complex look at class in America as well as a powerful film about grief, The Son’s Room, is far too centered on the pain of one character.
Yet where so many recent American films of similar ambition lose ground in their last half hour (or worse, somebody turns up with a gun, punches someone’s head in, or delivers a long repressed angry monologue validating Fran Lebowitz quip that spilling your guts is as ugly as it sounds), The Son’s Room does push beyond its self-composed boundaries and deliver a real glimpse of the little ways in which those who grieve regain their moorings. It is also exciting to see a director who we’ve begun to formulate warm preconceptions about strive so deliberately to shake them off.