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- Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
Nanni Moretti has been an idiosyncratic voice in Italian cinema for decades, from his acerbic comedies such as The Sweet Body of Bianca (1984) to the intimate autobiographical documentary Dear Diary (1993). Twenty years after winning the Palme d’Or for The Son’s Room (2001), the former Cannes jury president enters the competition once more with Three Floors, a maudlin melodrama set in a condominium in Rome and adapted from Eshkol Nevo’s novel Three Floors Up.
It opens on a peaceful view of a typical middle class Roman apartment building at night, but within minutes all sorts of chaos has taken place. Heavily pregnant Monica (Alba Rohrwacher) has gone into labour and is on the street trying to catch a cab when drunk young man Andrea (Alessandro Sperduti) speeds around the corner, mows down a pedestrian and smashes into the ground floor study of Lucio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Andrea’s parents, judge Vittorio (Nanni Moretti) and lawyer Dora (Margherita Buy), are split on how to proceed; Vittorio wants to wash his hands of his errant son while Dora wants to quiver weakly with unconditional love. Meanwhile, Lucio and his wife Sara (Elena Lietti) leave their daughter with an old couple while they go about their affairs. When the child briefly goes missing Lucio believes the old man, who is suffering from some form of dementia, has sexually assaulted her and sets off on an obsessive crusade to find out the truth, which in turn leads him to sleep with the old man’s underage granddaughter Charlotte (Denise Tantucci). Having given birth to her child Monica returns home alone, holding the baby clumsily, and begins to lose her grip on reality as she is neglected by her forever working abroad husband.
The film then proceeds to leapfrog five years twice, moving the plot forward as children grow and the old die, mental health deteriorates and jail sentences are served, lives get lived and feuds are played out. As you can tell from the intricate synopsis above, there’s enough plot in the first act for a full season of a soap opera.
Unfortunately, Moretti’s film lacks any of the easily digested enjoyment of a daytime soap, or the self-aware fun. Rather, the film is remarkably static: Michele D’Attanasio’s camera is leaden and televisual. There’s no zip to scenes. Actors appear unable to walk and talk. They just stand around saying lines at each other and looking vaguely embarrassed. Even the extras are unconvincing. As for the characters, they belong more to the medieval tradition of the humours – there’s female hysteria, here’s male choler – than any idea of psychological interiority or reality. When we see Monica’s newborn infant it’s a blessed relief to see someone on the screen behaving like they would in real life.
There is also something retrograde about the film, especially in its treatment of women. The good wives Dora and Sara are played as loving, forgiving, teary-eyed saints, whereas Monica is the carrier of her own brand of female madness. Worst still, Charlotte is portrayed as that hoary old cliche, the coquette who turns vengeful, rather than an underaged child taken advantage of by Lucio.
The men are all victims of their passions, unfairly held to account. (Just to be clear, this is a film set in contemporary times, not something from the 50s.) There could be an interesting examination into exactly why Lucio becomes so fixated with his daughter being assaulted. Is it perhaps a projection of his own hidden desires? But no. He’s a father who loves his daughter and he’s just a bit obsessed.
The problem overall is that Moretti, despite his acting role and his credits as writer (along with Valia Santella and Federica Pontremoli) and director, seems unwilling to inject anything of himself into the film. It’s unusually po-faced, with hardly any humour.
This is far from the mix of family comedy and dark tragedy that made The Son’s Room so compelling and original. Here, the film reproduces novelistic conceits which are awkward when translated cinematically, like Dora leaving messages on her own answerphone in order to continue her conversations with the now (gratefully) dead Vittorio. The two five-year ellipses allow characters to change dramatically without actually credibly developing. And then there are plot holes which make no sense. There’s a power cut that lasts for two nights without anyone commenting on it beyond lighting candles – before going to sleep with the candles still burning.
Late on in the film, Dora looks up at the building that has been the center of Moretti’s convoluted drama and remarks on how she never noticed over all these years how sad the building appeared. It’s an odd comment because the building looks neither sad nor happy: like the rest of the film it doesn’t seem to have much personality at all.
Film of the week: Mia Madre
Nanni Moretti revisits family loss with wit and mystery in this caustic quasi-self-portrait, says Philip Kemp.
By Philip Kemp
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy