Khristine Shares her Favorite Italian Movies and Series

This is the second installment of my “Reader’s Advisory” Progetto Speciale on my personal choices of Italian movies/series. I’m not a film critic, or even really a film aficionado. I am just a lover of “things Italian,” including Italian culture, Italian food, and “la bella lingua,” the beautiful Italian language. Oh, and Italians, too. Perhaps you are also, or would like to be. You don’t need to speak Italian (I really don’t), or even understand it, or even be half Italian (like me!). You just need to have an openness toward watching movies with subtitles (so easy), and a way to watch them. For me, it’s DVDs from our fabulous Cape libraries, or Kanopy streaming, which you get for free with your library card.  Andiamo!! Let’s go!!

All four of the following movies starring celebrated Italian actor Marguerita Buy available on Kanopy!

Mia Madre (My Mother) 2015

It’s a brilliant blend of warmth, charm and many emotions. Middle-aged social-realist film director Marguerita (played by Margherita Buy) tries to maintain control as her beloved mother Ada is dying, and ridiculously inept American actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro) is arriving to star in her latest film.  She has recently broken up with her live-in boyfriend, Vittorio, one of her actors, who tells her that there is a reason relationships are so difficult for her. No one can do anything well enough for her. She tells her actors and her staff that they are totally incompetent, waving her arms, shouting “cut”, while giving them vague instructions which leave them looking completely bewildered. In other words, for Marguerita, “Il meglio è nemico del bel bene” (the perfect is the enemy of the good). And now she has Barry on her hands, with his protestations of having worked with Stanley Kubrick on multiple occasions, and his hysterical temper tantrums. In one fantastic scene, Marguerita and Barry have a shouting match in front of the whole crew in the middle of a scene, and if you don’t yet know the meaning of the word “stronzo,” you will have figured it out by the end of the scene.

While she tries to spend as much time with her mother, a retired teacher of classics who is much loved and almost revered by her former students, Marguerita struggles with her guilt, and is torn between all her roles, including being a responsible mother to her lovely and loving teenage daughter Livia. Some of the most touching scenes are between Livia and her dying grandmother, who gently corrects and encourages Livia with her Latin, as the bond between them deepens. Although Marguerita is divorced, she and her former husband are attentive parents, and have put aside whatever differences they had in order to give Livia a secure relationship within her family. 

Nanni Moretti, acclaimed director of this and many other movies, plays Marguerita’s gentle, loving brother. His understated acting, which reveals his profoundly compassionate nature, is central to his relationship with the other characters. They are both devoted to their mother, who entirely deserves their devotion. Giovanni has given up his job in order to do whatever can be done, as Ada lays dying in the hospital, and he fills in for Margherita without doing anything which ought to make her feel guilty. But her own guilt, anxiety, fear and denial show up in her dreams, which blend so much with her waking life that it is sometimes unclear what is dream and what is not. She is a person on her way to an understanding of herself, and of the way she has lived her life, including her effect on others. It is impossible not to like Marguerita and to feel empathy for her, and indeed for all the characters in this beautiful and insightful story. Even Barry Huggins (Turturro) turns out to be unexpectedly endearing!

Viaggio Sola (A Five Star Life) 2013

If your dream is to luxuriate in Five Star hotels in exotic locations, while being waited on hand and foot by obsequious attendants, well then, this one’s for you! Hotel inspector Irene (Marguerita Buy) is what is known in hotel circles as a Mystery Guest, unknown to Five Star hotel managers and staff until check-out time, when she reveals herself and passes judgement. From the moment she opens her laptop, pulls on her white gloves, and starts checking off her list, she is a consummate professional. But part of her job is to make sure that guests are treated well no matter who they are. You can just feel Irene’s satisfaction as she castigates a manager for his staff’s snubs of a young newlywed couple who are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the unspoken rules…oh dear, they wore terrycloth “bathrobes” to the pool, not the correct “pool” robes!

When back at home base in Italy, Irene’s most important relationships are with her harried musician sister and musician brother-in-law, her two young nieces, and her best friend and former lover, Andrea (dishy, award winning movie star Stefano Accorsi). Now she finds her sister constantly resentful and angry at her for her lack of commitment, and her seemingly selfish unattached lifestyle, so there is conflict there, and Irene seems confused by the state of affairs. Andrea has now gotten a young woman pregnant, and is confused about what should happen, so he is less available to Irene than he had been, though their relationship is still warm and loving. But these people she loves don’t hesitate to let her know what they think is lacking in her chosen lifestyle. And then a chance meeting at an elegant Berlin hotel with writer Kate Sherman (English actor Lesley Manville in a fascinating cameo), makes her re-examine her life through the lens of intimacy. The fallout from this encounter rattles her, and we can’t help but wonder whether she will find more satisfaction in following the path others point her toward or whether she will continue on the path she now follows. But don’t worry…all will be revealed!

Giorni e nuvole (Days and Clouds) 2007

This story of a marriage and the influence of sudden financial loss on a couple’s way of life has moments of great beauty as well as tremendous emotional pain for the protagonists. Filmed in the industrial seaport city of Genoa on the Ligurian coast, this is not a movie in which the glorious beauty of Italy will soften the story’s realism. Genoa has its own presence, which seems rather utilitarian and cold because of the angles from which it is photographed.

Elsa (Margherita Buy) and her husband Michele (Antonio Albanese) are a well-off middle aged couple living in a beautiful apartment, full of valuable art and antiques. Their 20 year old daughter Alice runs an intimate restaurant along with her former boyfriend, and is now living with her new man. But she is close with her parents, and makes frequent appearances at their home. Elsa, in the movie’s opening scene, is showing a slide presentation of an ancient ceiling fresco she is uncovering and restoring, which is well-received by the board of professors who will grant her a higher degree in her field. She joins her young colleagues at the site of the restoration, and it is clear how moved she is by the work, how intuitive she is, and how important this part of her life, this sublime art, is to her. To celebrate her successful completion of her degree, Michele has presented her with an expensive gift and has made her a sumptuous surprise party, filling their large apartment with guests, and even a live band.But Michele has been waiting for Elsa to complete her degree before revealing the sobering truth to her. He has been betrayed by his best friend, the co-owner of his company, and has been unemployed for the past two months, pretending to be at work while hiding out on his boat. Everything must go, their home, their boat, their entire lifestyle must be drastically reduced. Elsa must take low-skill jobs which curtail her restoration project, and Michele must find something, anything, that will bring in money and perhaps lift him from depression and despair. This movie is the story of a couple’s love, and how difficult financial circumstances challenge this love and take it almost to the point of no return. Director Silvio Soldini is responsible for some amazing direction of these fine actors. Some of the minor roles are filled by his “ensemble” actors from previous films (including “Pane e Tulipani,” one of my favorite movies).

Not for me, but perhaps for you:

I Giorni Dell’abbandono (The Days of Abandonment) 2018

Although Margherita Buy is brilliant in this movie, the melodrama is so over the top that for my personal tastes, I found it almost unwatchable. Many of you will know the story from Elena Ferrante’s book of the same name. Unsuspecting wife Olga, is dumped by her weak, cowardly, self-absorbed husband Mario (Luca Zingaretti of “Inspector Montalbano” fame) for one of his sexy, young students, leaving her alone with their two children. This may be one of the uglier movie breakups I’ve seen. Swinging from rage to despair and back to rage, Olga loses all sense of self-respect and dignity, and descends into a truly bleak and dark emotional abyss, from which she eventually claws her way back. It was hard for me to take this movie very seriously. Margherita Buy is a great actress, and her gift for subtlety, which I admire so much, was nowhere to be found in this her most recent movie, though many of her other dramatic skills are fully on display. (This one is for lovers of sensational high melodrama!)

To check out more of Khristine’s Italian movie recommendations, check out Un Progetto Speciale – Part 1!