An intelligent and tender film that might be classified as a male weepie, the Italian film The Son's Room won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last summer, one of the most prestigious prizes in all of film (previous winners include Pulp Fiction and Dancer in the Dark). But, that said, director Nanni Moretti's film might be the least impressive Palme d'Or winner I've ever seen and is almost certainly the least heralded winner in recent years.
One American critic, reporting from Cannes, suggested that the film -- as a sort of heartwarming tragedy -- might have an American crossover success of "near Benigni proportions," in reference to Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, which was the highest-grossing foreign-language film in U.S. history until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along. That hasn't happened, and won't, and this at least is a compliment to the film. For better or worse, The Son's Room is too naturalistic and serious and quiet to provoke that kind of audience response in the U.S.
At first blush, Moretti and Benigni have a lot in common: Both are Italian auteurs of the same generation who star in, direct, and write their films, but where Benigni is zany and manic, Moretti is deadpan and reserved, where Benigni directs so as to draw attention to himself (cutting to reaction shots to reinforce his own "charm"), Moretti is much more modest. I haven't seen any of Moretti's previous films -- he was heretofore a major figure in Italy and France but nowhere else -- but his filmic biography reads as a cross between Jean-Luc Godard and Woody Allen, starring as variations of himself in comic, nonfiction films undergirded with radical politics. The Son's Room is Moretti's first standard narrative-fiction film.
Moretti plays Giovanni, a successful psychiatrist living in a small Italian city. The first half of the film leisurely establishes Giovanni's family and career normalcy. He admirably treats a series of patients (whose comic litany of ailments is familiar but well done) then retires to the sun-dappled apartment he shares with his beautiful wife Paola (Laura Morante), a publisher of art books, and their two extremely normal teenage children, Irene (Jasmine Trinca) and Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice). But Giovanni's happy home life and satisfying career are irrevocably upset by a family tragedy when Andrea is killed in a diving accident and the remaining members of the family are thrown into separate spirals of grief.
This sounds a lot like recent Oscar nominee In the Bedroom by Todd Field, and the comparison between the two films is unavoidable. The Son's Room is more purposefully therapeutic. Where In the Bedroom left the viewer in the abyss (or in the bedroom) of grief after an impotent attempt at closure through retribution, The Son's Room plots a more plausible way out of trauma. As respectable and liberal-middle-class as Giovanni himself, the film is tranquil and wistful, pulling its left-behind trio through grief to recovery. When an ex-girlfriend of Andrea's shows up, she gives the family a glimpse into Andrea's life outside of the family and provides the opportunity for a bit of parental care-giving in his memory, along with help from Brian Eno and a French beach.
But however tasteful and laudable the film is, it simply isn't as powerful as In the Bedroom, which makes more memorable and more moving use of the son's room and provides heart-numbing glimpses at post-loss emptiness (in staccato flashes of the grieving parents doing absolutely nothing) more searing than anything in Moretti's film. And, as cinematic meditations on parental loss go, The Son's Room is certainly no match for the simultaneous intellectual detachment and deep sadness and mystery of Atom Egoyan's great The Sweet Hereafter.
There are some great scenes here: The moment when Giovanni's and Irene's eyes meet in the middle of Irene's basketball game is a stunner, and the depiction of the family watching Andrea's coffin being sealed (any reliance on religion here is pointedly absent) has a bone-chilling finality. And, despite the way its appealing naturalness is undercut by narrative and visual blandness, The Son's Room is still preferable to what Hollywood would do with the same material. When Andrea's former girlfriend materializes, she's no angel of reconciliation but a regular kid who already has a new boyfriend. When the two kids finally depart from Giovanni and family, they seem relieved. And when Giovanni, Paola, and Irene are left on the beach, there's no teary embrace or big speech, just a tranquil, wistful blast of ocean air and the sense that, for these three people walking apart yet together, life will go on and get better.
-- Chris Herrington
If you took Waiting To Exhale and crossed it with How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Four Weddings and a Funeral, you would probably get something very close to Crush, a quietly quirky chick drama set against the wistfully magical landscape of the rural English countryside.
Meet Kate (Andie MacDowell), a prim and proper school headmistress in her early 40s. Never married, she divides her time equally -- working, looking for Mr. Right, and sharing gin, caramels, and cigarettes with her two best friends: the thrice-divorced Molly (Anna Chancellor) and the feisty single mom Janine (Imelda Staunton). Molly is a physician ravenously man-hungry but picky; unlike Kate, she is looking for Mr. Exactly Right right now. Janine, a police inspector, has a milder appetite for men but is no less on the prowl.
Set in the quaint and gorgeous Cotswolds, Crush follows our three heroines in a strictly observed ritual of indulgence and man-talk. Then the trio's world is turned decisively off its axis when a new man enters Kate's life -- 25-year-old Jed (Kenny Doughty), Kate's former pupil and the new church organist. The fact that Jed is good with his organ is not lost on Kate or anybody, and so it is not long at all before he and Kate are having sex in just about every possible place (including the church! and the graveyard! egad!).
Of course, Molly and Janine do not approve. Jed is just not up to the standard of classy, wealthy men this trio of fabulously 40-ish ladies have grown accustomed to. He doesn't fit anywhere in their grand scheme of things -- except with Kate -- and she is all but lost to them while he is in her life. When marriage plans are drawn, Molly and Janine turn from frowns and distractions to an all-out plot to break them up -- for Kate's own good, of course.
This is where Crush takes a turn. In this movie all about the triumphs and trials of lifelong friends, Molly and Janine execute a plan with such disastrous results that the film doesn't quite recover. Without spoiling the end (or middle, rather), let me just say that it becomes very difficult to follow the ups and downs of the friendship after what turns out to be a truly terrible betrayal. But while Crush eventually comes around full circle to its mildly oddball sentiments, I'm not quite able to forgive the results of a "plot" that tests the bounds of these three old friends. Part of me wants to think that it is because first-time director and writer John McKay romanticizes the mysterious and seemingly impenetrable bonds between girlfriends, while the other part of me selfishly wants the easy answers without the tough questions.
Andie MacDowell is cast just right in this film. Crush almost feels like a fairy tale, with its mix of romance and gentle nuttiness, and MacDowell has always served films best that do not require great leaps of comedy or tragedy but have just enough of both: Groundhog Day, Green Card, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. She also exudes a sexy unlikelihood in all of her films: a Valley Girl Southerner wherever she goes, which one can either ignore or despise. I choose to accept it most of the time, and she really is good here.
MacDowell is supported by a fine duo: Imelda Staunton (the funny Nurse in Shakespeare in Love) and Anna Chancellor (Duckface from Four Weddings and a Funeral), who take themselves wonderfully seriously and won't let dignity stand in the way of securing a man. Newcomer Kenny Doughty is the surprise here, though. His Jed is all the right kinds of sexy: young, intense but not at all serious, sincere, and most of all (pay attention to this, Hollywood hunks) unconcerned with being sexy. He just is. And from his first to last moments of casual, gum-chewing sensuality, we have no trouble understanding the attraction and ultimately the love that surprises and bewitches both Jed and Kate. -- Bo List