Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room ( La Stanza del Figlio ) takes up the subject of a son’s death, treated also in the much-praised (and I think overpraised) In the Bedroom . From a screenplay by Linda Ferri, Mr. Moretti and Heidran Schleef, The Son’s Room is not as melodramatically manipulative, and I think this is all to the good. In addition, the family in Mr. Moretti’s film is warmer, more robust and more convivial–both before and after its heartrending loss–than in its counterpart in the chillier and more fashionably despairing In the Bedroom .
In addition to his writing and directing functions, Mr. Moretti plays the central role of Giovanni, a psychiatrist practicing in the small Italian town of Ancona, and much of the film’s humor and dramatic counterpoint is derived from Giovanni’s artfully interwoven sessions with eight comically contrasting patients. Giovanni’s feisty wife Paola is played by Laura Morante, with whom Mr. Moretti has co-starred on two previous occasions, in Sogni D’oro and Bianca . Less familiar but equally affecting in the roles of their son Andrea and daughter Irene are charismatic newcomers Giuseppe Sanfelice and Jasmine Trinca.
Giovanni and his family seem to enjoy a truly idyllic existence, although there are foreshadowings of troubles to come. Like teenagers everywhere, Andrea and Irene do not communicate with their parents as much as their parents think they should. When Andrea is suspended from school because he’s suspected of stealing a fossil with the help of a friend, he denies the charge. Afterward, the student who informed on Andrea is scolded in a humiliating fashion by his father for making an accusation without airtight proof. Giovanni tells his wife that the father’s unfeeling behavior upsets him, but there is no follow-up. Later, after Andrea confesses to his mother that he and his friend did steal the fossil as a prank against their teacher, Paola tells Giovanni this with an air of mortification–but again there is no follow-up.
Giovanni is more concerned with Andrea’s lack of competitive fire in a school tennis match. From the way his son plays, Giovanni decides, Andrea doesn’t care if he wins or loses, which sets up another barrier between father and son. Ironically, Irene displays so much competitive zeal in her school basketball league that she’s suspended for several games for brawling with the fans, the referee and the opposing players over the lack of a foul call. When Giovanni tries to console her on the bus back from the game, Irene rebuffs him. But these are only small frustrations for the supposedly calm and level-headed Giovanni, a model of caring and objectivity to his patients. The big test is yet to come.
One day, Giovanni asks Andrea to jog with him to the harbor and back. Andrea pleads that he has an appointment to go scuba-diving with his friends. Giovanni persists, and Andrea agrees. The phone rings. Giovanni answers it. It is a patient who desperately needs a house call. While Giovanni visits the patient, who has been diagnosed with a tumor, Andrea goes scuba-diving with his friends and drowns–either due to his own miscalculation or to a defect in his equipment. Giovanni is disconsolate, and tries to take all the responsibility upon himself: If only he hadn’t answered the phone; if only he hadn’t agreed to make a house call. When Paola tries to talk about Andrea at a dinner party, Giovanni gently grabs her wrist as if to make her stop. At home, she accuses him of trying to keep Andrea for himself as part of his own guilt. Giovanni and Paola begin to grieve separately, and the marriage itself is in jeopardy.
An unexpected instrument of healing arrives in the form of a love letter to Andrea from a young woman named Arianna (Sofia Vigliar). Giovanni and Paola didn’t know that their son had a girlfriend. Their first efforts to make contact with her to tell her of Andrea’s death do not succeed in bringing Arianna into the grieving process. Meanwhile, Giovanni begins to neglect his psychiatric practice, with possibly grave financial consequences for the family.
When Arianna appears to commiserate with the family, she has a new boyfriend, and they are hitchhiking their way to France. Giovanni and Paola offer to drive them part of the way, with Irene tagging along. They end up driving them all the way, and see them off on a bus in France. In one of the great final images in all of cinema, Giovanni, Paola and Irene wander onto a beach, keeping their distance from each other spatially, but becoming united as never before emotionally. Call it closure, call it healing: This kinetic imagery captures the moment in which a family has worked out its collective grief–not by an act of murder to avenge a son’s death, but by a generous gesture toward the dead son’s beloved.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen a film that has absorbed me from start to finish that I’d forgotten how difficult it is for the time machine in movies to move smoothly without breaking down now and then, with periods when the screen seems to be idling with tedious exposition and clumsy setups for dramatic action. One example: Giovanni’s jogs to the harbor and back establish his locale, his aspirations, his fantasy (of a filial companion for the run), and his state of mind based on energy left over from the carefully controlled psychiatric sessions. And the sessions themselves remind us that Mr. Moretti is perhaps the leading cinematic satirist of our time. Indeed, Mr. Moretti has been greeted by some critics with a mixture of suspicion and disappointment for making us cry instead of making us laugh. It is usually the other way around for the advocates of middlebrow seriousness at all costs–not that Mr. Moretti’s comic works lacked somber overtones of their own. The Son’s Room is thus not an interruption in his career, but a leap upward to a spiritual epiphany graced with visual elegance and energy. Don’t miss it!