Legend of the Croisette: The Low-Key Genius of Nanni Moretti

Legend of the Croisette: The Low-Key Genius of Nanni Moretti

Nanni Moretti always dresses impeccably — whether tuxed-up for the Cannes red carpet for his eight competition appearances since 1978 (his ninth, for A Brighter Tomorrow, will come May 24) or walking the Croisette in the casual chic (cashmere sweaters and chinos with open-collar shirts in dark gray or plum) that appears to come naturally to Italian men of Moretti’s generation. But the mantle of elder statesman of Italian cinema seems to hang on the 69-year-old director more like an ill-fitting suit.

It’s hard to deny Moretti’s position as a successor to the great neorealists — Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini — and the generation of New Wave heroes of the 1960s like Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci and Lina Wertmüller who reclaimed and restored Italian cinema after the ravages of fascism. His list of awards and acclaims alone — the Palme d’Or for The Son’s Room in 2001, Cannes best director in 1994 for Dear Diary, jury prize winner in Venice for Golden Dreams in 1981 and in Berlin for 1986’s The Mass Is Ended — would seem sufficient to secure his international reputation and legacy.

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But Moretti has never quite been taken as seriously as the generation of New Wavers that preceded him. His films, shot in a straightforward, no-frills style, are less “cinematic” than those of Fellini or Antonioni, critics moan. The wry, ironic humor that pervades much of his work, and his tendency to write, direct and star in most of his movies as a figure, often a film director, who functions as Moretti’s alter ego, got him branded as the “Italian Woody Allen,” a label he has struggled to shake.

For many outside his home country — where he is an acknowledged maestro — Moretti can seem simply too Italian. A full appreciation of his films’ humor can depend on a viewer’s understanding of Italian politics and its unique combination of the serious and the farcical. His 1989 feature Red Wood Pigeon is an insightful critique of the Italian Communist Party told through the ponderings of a water polo player with amnesia. We Have a Pope tells a surprisingly moving story of responsibility, faith and personal choice through a sketch-comedy premise of a newly elected pontiff (played by Michel Piccoli) who gets a last-minute attack of stage fright and refuses to go out to greet the faithful. 

Then there is the man himself. Tall and ungainly, with a neatly trimmed beard and a self-deprecating manner — “I know that a movie can’t save the world… you can’t ask too much from cinema,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview in 2015 — Moretti seems slightly out of place everywhere. A bit too radical for the mainstream — he’s a former Communist and his politics, both personal and cinematic, remain far left of center. But to some he’s also too safe — that plain, unpretentious camera work, those chinos — to feel truly avant-garde cool. The maestro hasn’t helped matters. When he plays himself onscreen, Moretti adds autobiographical touches that puncture any pretensions to grandeur. In Dear Diary, his battle with cancer is paired with a chance encounter with Flashdance actress Jennifer Beals. In 2015’s omnibus feature The Legend of the Palme d’Or, he recounts how, flying back home from Cannes, he absentmindedly forgot his own Palme statuette on the plane (he eventually got it back).

“That (self-irony) was always there from the beginning,” says Moretti in an exclusive interview with THR RomaThe Hollywood Reporter’s first European edition, ahead of this year’s Cannes festival. “Fifty years ago to the day I shot my first two Super 8 shorts, and three things came naturally to me (that) I’ve taken with me all my life: Talking about my world, the world of the left-wing Roman middle class, doing it with irony, particularly self-irony, and planting myself not just behind the camera but in front of it as well.”

But however he might present, Cannes always knew Moretti was bound for greatness.

“When we decided to put (Moretti’s sophomore feature) Ecce Bombo — a Super 8 film! — into competition when I first arrived in 1978, it was because I had a premonition,” said former festival president Gilles Jacob, “that Nanni Moretti would soon become NANNI MORETTI.”

Everything that would make the Italian director into that all-caps version that Croisette crawlers recognize was already on display in Ecce Bombo. The film focuses on Michele, played by Moretti, and his good-natured but often directionless friend Mirko (Fabio Traversa), both middle-class university students in Rome (who sport period-appropriate, and absolutely fabulous, shoulder-length hair and mustaches) who join together to start holding “consciousness-raising meetings,” essentially long debates about politics, society and the world, with their similarly aligned and similarly coiffed friends.

Moretti’s ear for dialogue, his sense of timing and comic flair, the combination of absurdist comedy and clear-eyed politics — “I think that we’re wrong about nearly everything, in our relationships with women, among ourselves, with study, with our family, with work,” notes Mirko in one long Moretti-penned monologue — is all there, fully formed.

Over the years, and decades, of presenting films in Cannes, Moretti has shifted wildly in tone — from the postmodernist satire of The Caiman, a film about a hack director trying to make a political satire skewering scandal-prone Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — to the intimate melodrama of Three Floors, featuring Riccardo Scamarcio as a man who becomes convinced his elderly neighbor is an abuser, and takes drastic measures to confront him.

Along the way, he delivered at least two universally acclaimed masterpieces.

2001’s The Son’s Room, a heart-wrenching story of loss, in which Moretti plays a psychoanalyst paterfamilias of a seemingly idyllic middle-class Italian household who is undone by grief after the accidental death of a son, won both the Palme d’Or and the international critics organization FIPRESCI prize. Rushing up to accept his Palme, an obviously flustered Moretti rattled off a list of thank-yous in rapid-fire Italian before reverting to primary-school French with a quick “merci, merci, merci.”

Then, after the broad satires of The Caimen and We Have a Pope — the latter featuring a memorable scene of volleyball-playing cardinals — Moretti again wowed the Croisette with Mia Madre. The 2015 feature combined the winky irony of his earlier work with the emotional punch of The Son’s Room to tell a story of a filmmaker in a creative crisis whose mother is dying in hospital. It is arguably the most personal of Moretti’s highly autobiographical work. The director’s own mother died during the making of We Have a Pope and, to add verisimilitude to Mia Madre, Moretti used assorted objects from her life, including her clothes and books, as costumes and props. While writing the script, he went back to the diaries he kept during his mother’s sickness, extracting lines to work into the film. 

But instead of casting himself as the director, Moretti pulled off a clever gender swap, getting Margherita Buy to play the filmmaker while he took the role of her brother, Giovanni (Moretti’s real first name), who takes time off from work to care for their mother, letting Buy, guilt-ridden, to continue to finish her movie. As she does, dealing with the comically incompetent, insecure American star of her film, played by John Turturro, reality begins to fray and Margherita slips into vivid, hallucinatory dreams, evocative of Fellini’s 81/2, one of Moretti’s acknowledged cinematic touchstones. “If you ask me what my favorite films are, (the list) changes day by day,” he notes, “but La Dolce Vita and 81/2 are always there.”

After the more restrained drama of Moretti’s last film, 2021’s Three Floors, divided critics at its Cannes debut, the director’s return to the Croisette, A Brighter Tomorrow, has a storyline that reads like a Moretti superfan wish list. Giovanni, a renowned Italian filmmaker, played by Moretti (check), is about to start shooting a political film (check). But his marriage is in crisis (check) and his film is falling apart as the movie industry transforms around him (check). Safe to say the director’s international army of fans will be out in force when A Brighter Tomorrow premieres in Cannes.

Moretti says he’s looking forward to seeing the other Italian films in competition — Marco Bellocchio’s Kidnapped and Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera “immediately.” “I try to watch all Italian films — it’s a pleasure not an obligation,” he says, as well as those from “directors I have always followed like Ken Loach or Wim Wenders,” both in Cannes competition this year, with The Old Oak and Perfect Days, respectively.

But, to hear Moretti tell it, the experience of Cannes from the perspective of the director is less glitz and glamor, more hard promotional grind.

“You spend two days holed up in a room doing interviews,” said Moretti. “First there’s a group of five people: an Englishman, two Americans, one Dutch, a Belgian, then there’s a Frenchman who miraculously managed to get a one-on-one interview. Then there’s another group of six people: a Turk, two Spaniards and a German. That’s the way it is when you attend a festival.”

His tip for Cannes first-timers? “The important thing is that after the film, when the party begins, not to stay up late because interviews kick off early the following morning.”

If the buzz around A Brighter Tomorrow ahead of Cannes is to be believed, a second Palme could be in the cards. But having seen how the operation works — “I’ve been part of (festival) juries many times, twice in Cannes, including once as president and two times in Venice, also once as president,” he noted. “At the end of the day, there may be merit for certain films, but the choice of (who wins) the Palme often is not a very rational one.”

What the director does love about the spectacle of the Croisette, however, is its celebration of cinema, his first and most lasting love.

“I was very good at water polo when I was younger — I played in the top Italian league. I was a young player on the national team, very strong, yet I quit at 17,” he said. “I was a political activist at school (and) I also quit politics. But I clung to cinema.”

Moretti might never quite fit the role of Italian film grandee — too self-mocking, too eager to put his insecurities on display — but the 69-year-old director is genuine in his devotion to “cinema as a creative process and cinema as a destination, to the movie theater itself,” he says. “As long as movie theaters remain open, I think I’ll (continue to) write, shoot and edit films for the big screen. In my opinion there are some producers, directors and screenwriters who have sort of given up on theaters as the final destination of their work, so they seek refuge in (the streaming) platforms which pay quite well. So maybe the producers are happy and perhaps the directors and screenwriters are too, but (something) goes missing. A producer came to me recently and said a streamer told him their target audience is ‘a 13-year-old boy in Pennsylvania who watches movies on his smartphone while riding the subway.’ I’m sorry, but if you sail those seas, you’ll end up catching those fish. I hope producers, screenwriters and directors will go back to investing — psychologically, professionally and emotionally — in films made for the movie theater. Maybe it’s a lost battle.” 

He adds: “But in life, one learns that many battles that are waged are lost, but that is no reason to stop fighting. If everyone has always just toed the line, we’d have never had a La Dolce Vita, an 81/2, or all those other cinematic masterpieces all over the world.”