Nanni Moretti:
Standing Up and Lying Down


It does not take a PhD in Cinema History to realise that, across its long span, film comedy (at least in the Western world) has undergone a major reorientation. It has moved from being, primarily, a matter of bodies to become a matter of speech. With Charles Chaplin, Marion Davies, Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton at one extreme; and Woody Allen, Miranda July, Elaine May and Billy Crystal at the other extreme. The Marx Brothers (mute, graceful Harpo versus loquacious Groucho) serve to indicate the exact transition-point between eras. Slowly, over time, the verbal joke has won dominance over the visual and physical gag. This is indicated, today, by the ubiquitous presence of what is called stand up comedy – and its saturation on streamed TV.

But do not instantly assume that this reorientation can be explained simply by the changeover from silent cinema to talking cinema and television. The gag-comedy of bodies continues well past the introduction of sound technology. However, it takes increasingly bizarre, hybrid forms, involving artificial or fantastic bodies, and the interfacing of human and machine. That’s the story of film comedy from Frank Tashlin through to a today little-noticed figure from Italy, Maurizio Nichetti.

Increasingly, High Concept comedy becomes a matter of performers interacting with animation and special effects, as in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) or Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003). Sometimes, the acrobatic skill or athletic agility of the actor is still required (as in the cases of Jerry Lewis, Totò in Italy, or Molly Shannon’s early days on American TV’s Saturday Night Live) for this comedy to work. Overwhelmingly, though, film comedy today is either primarily speech-based, or a concoction of artifice and montage – just look at the career of Will Ferrell, who is adept at alternating these modes.

In this broadly sketched history of comedy, another Italian, Nanni Moretti, holds a special and subversive place. No one could mistake Moretti, body-wise, for an athlete or acrobat. And no one could deny that much of his cinema constitutes a virtuosic playing on many social registers of speech, from grumbling and howling through to eloquence and mastery. As Ela Bittencourt has pointed out in an essay for a Filmoteca Española retrospective of 2023, his characters – and, one feels, Moretti himself behind these characters – is always imperiously looking for the right word, the exact phrasing, the correct locution. And he looks down with some measure of disdain on those who can never achieve this. Moretti pits himself against the speech-sins of his time: hyperbole, oversimplification, media-fed cliché, vulgarity.

And yet, for all its incessant talking, the cinema of Moretti is among the most poignantly physical that exists. The body – and very often, Moretti’s own body – is placed at the centre of his work. (The same can be said of another notably eccentric director-writer-actor in France: Luc Moullet.) This body is not inherently expressive or graceful, but it dreams of being so: hence, the recurring fantasy of Moretti, from Caro diario (1994) and Aprile (1998) through to Il sol dell’avvenire (A Brighter Tomorrow, 2023), of he and his comrades magically transformed into singers and dancers within a lavish musical – a musical about real life, social class, politics. Across his (so far) 47 years of directing films, Moretti has helped invent a privileged figure or type in modern cinema: the neurotic body.

This neurotic body is, in some sense, crippled. Disabled by anxiety, doubt, fright, fear. Often, Moretti’s heroes (whether incarnated by himself or other actors) experience an agonising failure to perform. Their actions freeze, and they must flee the scene of their public humiliation. This is as true of the water-polo player (Moretti) in the middle of a match in Palombella rossa (1989) as of the Pope (Michel Piccoli) about to step before his worshipping congregation in Habemus Papam (2011).

And it is equally true of those protagonists with more modest, ordinary, essentially cerebral, white collar professions: the psychoanalyst (Moretti) in The Son’s Room (2001) or the film director (Margherita Buy) in Mia madre (2015). Whether standing up or lying down, Moretti’s characters are in deep trouble – and, at some unexpected, catastrophic point in their lives, they come to realise this.

I recall the wise words of the radical thinker Félix Guattari who, during a 1973 Italian conference on “Psychoanalysis and Politics”, railed against the tendency to misrecognise or discredit “the problem of fatigue, neurosis, delirium” (that could be a plot synopsis of numerous Moretti films!): “It is quite common that one refuses to understand a militant who cracks up; one breaks off relations with and considers as finished a militant who is frightened in front of the police”. (1) Another attitude, another way of understanding events on the simultaneously personal and political plane, is needed – then as now.

Although the connection is rarely made, the filmmaker with whom Moretti exhibits the closest affinity is Marco Bellocchio – whose films are rarely funny, except in the blackest way. Massimo Fagioli, former collaborator (and personal psychoanalyst) of Bellocchio, once described him as a “great depressive” who constantly “risks the destruction of his individual identity” – and virtually all of his films reflect, in some way, a crisis of depression, a blockage of the self.

This is also 100% true of Moretti and his films. Depression tends to form the emotional baseline of his characters. They face problems not just of verbal communication, but of personal expression in its fullest sense: of bodily flow, of contact with the skin of others, of maintaining idealism and enthusiasm, no matter what path they are on. Il sol dell’avvenire takes this tendency to its ultimate, logical conclusion: a filmmaker who stages his alter ego in the act of committing suicide – perhaps in somber recollection of Nicholas Ray’s lacerating self-portrait in We Can’t Go Home Again (1973/2009).

In the unfairly maligned (melo)drama Tre piani (Three Floors, 2021), Moretti bravely relates a range of modern neuroses of this type to the fluctuating contemporary situation of what is considered morally appropriate as distinct from taboo behaviour in any given social group – here, his cinema joins up with the thorny ethical dilemmas depicted by Krzysztof Kieślowski on the one hand, and Woody Allen on the other. But, more usually, Moretti gears his vision to a condition that is undoubtedly modern, but also recognisably universal: we are all neurotics, stumbling along, looking for fulfilment, seized and shaken, at some time or another, by grief, disappointment, loss of vitality, lack of inspiration.

In order to break out of a morose cycle – fixated on the stale routines of the past – Moretti’s central characters have to find a way to liberate and re-invent themselves, to once again live in the present and open up their future. They must re-enchant themselves, their loved ones (including family members, friends, co-workers), and the world immediately around them. This can express itself in the smallest of gestures: being able to once again enjoy a cup of coffee, or sing along to a popular tune; going for a stroll in the street, or a ride on the Vespa.

They need to find a way to return to Eden – not the mythical-spiritual heavenly Garden, but the realm of pleasure and contentment that awaits us in daily life, if only we can manage to unlock it, and retain it.

Even in the most humble, everyday settings, far from the heights of the Hollywood (or Jacques Demy) musical fantasy, dancing becomes one of the keys to this constant process of vitally necessary re-enchantment in Moretti’s cinema. Witness Nanni himself in Caro diario, glimpsing a TV in a bar, and then suddenly miming the surreal movements of Silvana Mangano. Or John Turturro in Mia madre, converting a tense cast-and-crew party into a sinuous celebration of life and its transforming, circulating energies. Not to mention the wondrous scene of collective turning and floating on the set of Il sol dell’avvenire

The last third of Caro diario documents and recreates, in agonising detail, Moretti’s brush with a mysterious, increasingly debilitating illness. Here, he personally encounters a very modern problem that is common to many of our lives: medical misdiagnosis. In the final scene, he arrays all the pills, powders and creams (which he has dutifully preserved in a perverse archive of his body) prescribed for him during this difficult period. And he concludes by demonstrating a simple piece of advice: drink a glass of water each day.

Such a tiny, banal act delivers such sublime cinema to us, thanks to Nanni Moretti.


1. Félix Guattari, “Psychoanalysis and Politics”, in Paul Foss & Meaghan Morris (eds), Language, Sexuality & Subversion (Sydney: Feral Publications, 1978), p. 128. back


© Adrian Martin 12 October 2023

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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