No self-respecting sophisticate admits to crying in a film – unless in carefully ironised or sentimentalised terms which announce a warm tribute to your inner child, while leaving untouched the dignity of the outer adult. It is okay to say you cried at the soon-to-be-rereleased ET, for example, but how about an earnest film garlanded with arthouse laurels, targeted candidly at the emotions and indeed the tearducts of adults? Admitting to sniffles here is uncool, a boneheadedly obvious admission of defeat in the face of what are – surely? – its middlebrow, manipulative designs. But sniffling, like dozing or getting aroused, does happen; it’s the secret history of film criticism.
So I admit it. When I saw Nanni Moretti’s family tragedy The Son’s Room premiere at Cannes last summer I did sniffle, and the experience was intense enough to induce a strange, faintly headachey delirium for hours afterwards. And frankly only familiarity stopped the same thing happening when I saw it again this week. On its first outing it was by many ambiguously praised as the thinking person’s weepie, then scooped up the ultimate prize of the Cannes Palme d’Or. But this affecting and beautiful film really is a very accomplished piece of work from Moretti, superbly acted, refreshingly direct and blessed with an ingenious, unexpected final act.
Director and co-writer Moretti plays Giovanni, the middle-aged paterfamilias of an educated, middle-class Italian household; he is a psychoanalyst, presiding with creeping professional midlife ennui over a querulous clientele. His beautiful wife Paola, played by Laura Morante, works in an art publishing house and is the mother of two blooming teenage children: Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) and Irene (Jasmine Trinca).
The essential happiness of their bourgeois existence is the happiness that, in the Russian phrase, writes white on the page. Its unassuming contentment is all but invisible, though at work the increasingly disenchanted Giovanni has just one thing in common with his patients: a growing conviction that he isn’t doing them much good. It is into this scenario that a horrible fate intrudes himself. Giovanni is forced through semi-sincere concern to make an unprecedented “house-call” to a patient, resulting in the cancellation of a proposed run with Andrea; his son goes diving instead and dies in an accident.
Until now, the quirky Moretti has been saddled with a Woody Allen comparison. That parallel survives here, not just in the leap to seriousness, but in the slightly unoriginal bored-shrink gags, familiar from Allen, or Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Harold Ramis’s Analyze This. In fact the scene in which Giovanni smiles at some orange-clad Krishna devotees in the street, and then appears in his apartment humming “Hare Rama”, is a knight’s move away from Allen – though unlike Allen, Moretti does not here make seriocomic intellectualism any sort of basis for film-making.
But the biggest and unhappiest comparison is with Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, which is superficially similar, dealing with the death of a beloved son. US critics have suggested that Field’s is the better film, on account of the dysfunctional agony of the family there, as opposed to the allegedly smug middle-class contentment of Moretti’s movie. The truth is actually the opposite. Field’s movie tries to expunge the grief and loss with a very uncomfortable thriller ending, turning the father into a handgun-wielding tough guy. The family in The Son’s Room simply have to endure the pain with no revenge fantasies to fall back on. It’s more convincing, and more moving as well.
The Son’s Room is notable for happening in a continuous, ordinary daylight. Moretti, cinematographer Giuseppe Lanci and designer Giancarlo Basili have contrived a series of unobtrusive, unassuming interiors: the psychotherapist’s office, the school principal’s study, the family kitchen and the dining room furnished with muted good taste. It is in this setting that the pain and rage of bereavement is shown with a slow and unwavering gaze. The movie follows this unspeakable process through almost in real time – patiently searching the wound – from the sequence in which Andrea’s corpse is sealed into its coffin by the stolidly workmanlike undertakers to the almost unbearable scene in which the family, catatonic with misery, decide that they will remember Andrea with a funeral mass “because that is the least sad thing”.
And all the time, Giovanni has to listen to his babbling, quarrelsome, unhappy patients – strangers to whom he has extended the dishonest, ersatz professional concern for which the gods have made him pay a terrible price. At first they are a kind of Prozac chorus to the movie’s central tragedy. But then Giovanni rejects them and rejects psychoanalysis itself with its ceaseless amplification and dramatisation of ordinary anxieties. It’s a remarkable repudiation of therapy and middle-class self-indulgence. But Moretti only partly endorses it: Giovanni’s patients are now filled with their own rage at his abandonment.
If there is a false note in the film, it is perhaps a slightly saccharine musical score, and a plangent final song for which Moretti hedges his bets by making it a track on a CD which Giovanni buys in Andrea’s memory. But Moretti’s real inspiration is in the final flourish of fate which he conjures out of nowhere: a hidden piece of Andrea’s past which surfaces after his death. It is a twist which closes the story with a satisfying click, providing unexpected narrative pleasure, as well as underscoring the movie’s sweetness and humanity. And for the audience, it gives us what the therapists call closure.