With the innocuously titled Sweet Dreams (Fai bei sogni), Italian director Marco Bellocchio stages a gentle, eminently watchable return to some of the key themes that have haunted his 50 years of filmmaking, particularly the scarring left by a dysfunctional family and maternal love gone awry. The story of a 9-year-old boy who loses his beloved mother is a much simpler, more direct film than the thematically rich My Mother’s Smile (2002), and has none of the churning family anger of Fists in His Pocket (1965). But based on journalist Massimo Gramellini’s best-selling autobiographical novel, it has an emotional unity and urgency that holds the attention, only flagging in the last innings of a surprisingly compact drama running well over two hours.
Perhaps its underlying simplicity is what kept it out of Cannes competition and sent it to open the Directors Fortnight. Yet that is exactly the quality that should foreshadow strong art house sales for Match Factory. Valerio Mastandrea and Berenice Bejo headline a graceful cast, whose understated and ultimately moving performances give viewers a strong hook onto the story.
Yet even in such an intimate and apparently mono color drama, Bellocchio’s social outlook is never far away. As the story unfolds and young Massimo grows into a man, Italy changes radically before his eyes. The mass emotions of the rowdy soccer crowds in 1969 Turin and the innocent pleasure of watching Raffaella Carra’s daring dances on TV describe an entire universe outside the rambling apartment where little Massimo (the wonderfully expressive Nicolo Cabras) lives with his pretty mom (an appealing, slightly off-kilter Barbara Ronchi) and handsome if distant dad (Guido Caprino). In the first scenes the boy and his mother are shown alone with each other in a close, symbiotic relationship, as though they were a couple. She sings a love song to him and they dance to the latest twist music, play hide and seek and cuddle. And they share a passion for late-night horror movies like Cat People and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, not to mention a cult serial featuring the powerful figure of the demonic Belphegor, who will become Massimo’s imaginary guardian angel after his mother’s sudden death in the film’s first act.
The odd thing is that no one tells him how she died, and he grows up believing it was a “sudden heart attack,” which becomes a screen memory his psyche erects to keep the pain at bay. The emotional scarring goes deep, however. As a solemn-eyed teen (Dario Dal Pero), he tells his schoolmates that his mother lives in New York. This, despite the expert warning of a wise priest and science teacher (Roberto Herlitzka), that he has to face his demons and acknowledge his mother’s death. Instead his friendship with rich boy Enrico (Dylan Ferrarrio) gives him a chance to bask in Enrico’s physically close relationship with his aristocratic, over-protective but loving mom (Emmanuelle Devos in an eccentric, eye-catching role.)
When we find him as a young man (Mastandrea) breaking into journalism as a sports writer, he is sad-eyed and distant and short-circuiting with girlfriends. One night he gets his big break on the national daily La Stampa when he happens to be on the spot of a major breaking news story.
Though his star is rising, a stint as a war correspondent in Sarajevo shows how detached and uncompassionate he is. Daniele Cipri’s dense cinematography captures the atmosphere of the wartime city in a few deft strokes: a radical fashion show, people filling water tanks under the protection of a UN tank; foreign reporters in camouflage vests crossing the street at a run to avoid snipers. When Massimo’s dare-devil photographer makes an ethically questionable judgment call about a traumatized boy and his mother, his cold-blooded decision to embellish the photo is so cynical, and familiar, it gets a nervous laugh.
Back in Turin, his editor promotes him to his own daily column in a funny editorial meeting that contrasts cynicism with emotional honesty. The film’s biggest pay-off is around the corner, as Massimo rises to the challenge of answering a letter from a reader who hates his domineering mother. It’s the high point and turning point rolled into one, yet typically, Bellocchio deflects its sentimentality with a bit of ironic humor.
Finally Dr. Elisa is introduced, a Roman medic who more than anyone else understands, or guesses, the source of Massimo’s anguish. Bejo is a ray of pure sunlight in the role compared to Mastandrea’s sunken gloom, and her eyes express everything not said in her spare dialogue. Still her character feels awfully last-minute, despite Francesca Calvelli’s fine editing job that intercuts the various time periods.
The director has always had a fondness for scary things onscreen, as was evident in his recent vampire yarn Blood of My Blood, which premiered at the last Venice festival. Here Massimo’s grief and solitude find visual correspondences not only in various Belphegor, Nosferatu and Caligari figures, but in the creepy atmosphere of the mother’s at-home funeral service, her coffin in the middle of the living room, surrounded by black-garbed mourners.
Carlo Crivelli’s beautiful orchestral score coolly alternates with lively pop songs of the day.