The Son’s Room

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE SON’S ROOM

6/10

La Stanza del Figlio : Italy (/France) 2001
director : Nanni Moretti
script : Moretti, Linda Ferri, Heidrun Schleef (story : Moretti)
producers include : Moretti
cinematography : Giuseppe Lanci
editing : Esmeralda Calabria
music : Nicola Piovani
lead actors : Nanni Moretti, Laura Morante
also : Jasmine Trinca, Giuseppe Sanfelice, Sofia Vigliar, Silvio Orlando
87 minutes

Winner of the 2001 Cannes Palme d’Or, The Son’s Room is a sombre foray into Raymond Carver territory. Unlike Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, it isn’t based on any specific Carver stories, but the debt is clear: Moretti, who produces, co-writes, directs and stars, has his character Giovanni read out Carver’s poem ‘Toes’ to his wife Paola (Morante), and the film adopts the American writer’s distinctively low-key approach, full of casual but penetrating observations of the human character in crisis.

Giovanni is a successful psychiatrist in an unnamed city on the Italian coast. His marriage to Paola is solid, and they have two well-adjusted children, teenagers Irene (Trinca) and Andrea (Sanfelice). Giovanni gets on well with Andrea – they often jog together. One ordinary Sunday afternoon, they’re about to go out for a run when Giovanni receives an emergency call from a client, Oscar (Orlando), who’s just been diagnosed with a tumour. Giovanni decides the situation is serious enough to warrant paying a house-call – so Andrea goes diving instead, with fatal consequences …

This is the second major film of 2001 exploring the devastating effects of domestic tragedy on a middle-class family – but where Todd Field’s manipulative In The Bedroom unwisely veered off down the route of revenge and vigilantism, The Son’s Room is refreshingly free of agenda. No-one is to blame for Andrea’s accidental death – but Giovanni feels guilt-stricken: what if he’d put off Oscar till Monday, and gone jogging with Andrea instead? But what if Andrea had then decided, halfway through, to go diving after all? What if Giovanni had persuaded him to keep running? Moretti the director visualises these alternative courses of history, and Moretti the actor shows us how much they torment the despairing Giovanni: a distinct case of ‘psychiatrist, heal thyself.

As a director, he’s competent enough, even if he occasionally overdoes it with the drippy piano background music. He’s generally functional and careful, and while this basic approach suits the numbingly serious subject-matter, he does allow himself a visual flourish when Giovanni stumbles across a funfair and goes on one of the rides. As he flies through the air, Lanci’s fixed camera is steady on his face as the flesh is pulled this way and that by G-force, hair wild in the rushing wind.

Moretti the writer he handles the difficult material with as much tact and sensitivity as you’d expect from someone willing to tackle this kind of tragic situation. Giovanni, Paola and Irene cope with their grief in different ways, each of them subject to unexpected eruptions of sorrow and anger – there’s a powerful sequence in the family kitchen when Giovanni is suddenly unable to stand how all the crockery is “chipped or repaired” and breaks a favourite old tea-pot. Less successful are the sequences set in his psychiatric practice – Moretti scores some cheap laughs by cutting between the moaning clients, an old ploy also used in the current Spanish release Ten Days Without Love.

But as the family work through their loss, the Carverian strengths in Moretti’s script become more apparent – they receive a letter from Arianna (Vigliar), who’d apparently been ‘seeing’ Andrea some time before. “I want to meet her,” Paola immediately exclaims, and it’s pure Carver. Arianna eventually does come to the family home which she’d seen in the photographs Andrea had sent her of his room, setting up the moving final sequence in which Giovanni impulsively, boldly leads his family into a new dawn in a new land: “Where the fuck are we?” snaps Irene, realising they’ve driven through the night and over the French border, just as we realise that this is a symbolic new start for everyone concerned.

As with Tom Wilkinson in Todd Field’s picture, Moretti carries the film, just as Giovanni feels the need to carry his family through their grief and into their shared new future. Giovanni isn’t a saint – one of his clients praises him as ‘serene’, and it’s as if fate is punishing him for this serenity, which is also a kind of smugness: early on, he listens to a song with the prophetic refrain “To live, you have to die a little.” It’s the toughest of lessons, and we’re with him all the way as he suffers his devastating loss and struggles to pick up the pieces. An impressive piece of work, by any standards. But the Palme d’Or? It must have been a very quiet fortnight on the Cote d’Azur.


20th November, 2001
(seen Nov-17-01, Odeon West End – London Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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