While directing a film starring “Barry Huggins” (John Turturro), a showboating American actor who can’t remember his lines, filmmaker Margherita (Margherita Buy) spends as much time as she can with her mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a former Latin teacher who is hospitalized with a failing heart. Margherita deeply loves the agreeable and intelligent Ada, and cannot accept that soon her mother will die.
Still she pushes on with the film, coaching the incorrigible Barry on the set by day and spending exhausting evenings drinking with him at his insistence. Meanwhile she and her former husband are co-parenting their lovely daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini). If Margherita decides to end a relationship with a smitten lover, who can blame her? She has enough on her hands.
Inevitably, Mia Madre evokes 8 ½, Fellini’s classic portrait of a director (Marcello Mastroianni) who has lost his way, aesthetically and morally, while making a film that grows more chaotic and meaningless by the day. Margherita, too, has lost faith in her vision. Her film concerns a massive factory layoff and consequent occupation by distraught workers. Yet she abhors political rhetoric and urges her actors not to identify with their characters, but to “stand beside” them. No one knows what she means.
While Fellini’s antihero hoists himself on his own petard, however, betraying his elegant wife (Anouk Aimée) with his kittenish mistress (Claudia Cardinale), Moretti’s Margherita seems unfairly judged by her maker. In a film about the making of a film about the importance of work to identity, coals are heaped upon her head for her selfishness in adhering to her vocation. Ada reveals that young Livia has recently experienced her first heartbreak over a boy—and Margherita never even noticed. The jilted lover tells Margherita what a horrible person she is (for dumping him!) and the film gives him full support.
Most insulting, Moretti casts himself as Giovanni, Margherita’s brother and maddeningly perfect counterpart. When Margherita brings take-out to the hospital to spare Ada from institutional food, Giovanni is already there, serving her with homemade pasta. While Margherita scourges her crew with screams of “Cut! Cut!” in the service of a product of her own imagination, Giovanni quits his high-paying corporate job to devote himself, it is implied, to “real life.” Even Barry, Margherita’s accomplice in the delusional world of artifice, is able to get real and boogie down with the crew, while she looks on, arms folded across her chest.
If Moretti’s intent was to create a self-reflexive image of the egocentric auteur—as Fellini does in 8 ½–he errs by identifying himself body and soul with the simpatico Giovanni. Instead of a frank but empathetic depiction of conflicting duties and the terror of aesthetic fragmentation, the film weighs in as a conventional portrait of the woman artist as narcissist and control-freak.