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the son's room review
The effects of a teenage boy's death on his family.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Nanni Moretti

Starring: Nanni Moretti, Laura Morante, Jasmine Trinca, Giuseppe Sanfelice, Sofia Vigliar

the son's room bluray

It's difficult to portray grief in cinematic terms. What even is grief? How we grieve as individuals is shaped by our cultural backgrounds, our life experiences, our relationship to the deceased. There's no right or wrong way to grieve, despite what blowhards on the internet might tell you when a celebrity "remarries too soon" after losing a spouse or when a stand-up comic works their loss into a witty routine. Some of us fall into a funk for weeks, months, maybe even years. Others take a deep breath and move on, immersing ourselves in whatever distractions we can cling to. When we grieve, are we mourning the deceased? Or is it something more narcissistic, a sadness for the empty space they've left in our own life? We're all just coping, and grief isn't for anyone else to police.

In his 2001 Palme d'Or winning masterwork, The Son's Room, Nanni Moretti refuses to police the grief experienced by his protagonists, a middle class Italian family whose teenage son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), dies in a diving accident.

the son's room review

Andrea's father, psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti), returns to work almost immediately, hoping that by listening to others' problems, he can forget his own torment. It doesn't happen that way. Giovanni grows contemptuous of his clients. Their concerns, which he once devoted himself to healing, now feel petty compared to his own heartbreak. He has a particularly troubling relationship with one patient, Oscar (Silvio Orlando), with whom he spent the Sunday morning he unknowingly lost his son. Oscar reveals a Cancer diagnosis, but Giovanni has little sympathy. At one point Giovanni breaks down in tears while listening to a patient's mundane worries about her household routine.

Blaming himself for Andrea's death, Giovanni runs the events of what began as a perfectly normal Sunday through his head. He imagines refusing to visit Oscar, and insisting Andrea go for ice cream with him instead of taking that fatal diving trip with his friends. Desperate for some connection with his son, he visits the boy's favourite haunts - a fairground where the adrenaline of a stomach-churning ride momentarily overtakes his grief; the training pitch where the boy practised various sports; and a record store where he queries the clerk on what might be a suitable CD to buy as a gift for Andrea (Brian Eno's 'By This River' seems an unlikely choice for a teenage boy in 2001, but it makes for an affecting closing credits accompaniment).

Andrea's mother, Paola (Laura Morante), similarly wishes to reconnect with her boy. She's gifted the opportunity by the arrival of a letter from Arianna (Sylvia Vigliar), a teenage girl Andrea met while away at summer camp. Paola is desperate to meet Arianna, likely imagining her as the daughter-in-law she might have had. In the emotionally overwhelming final act, Arianna's presence helps Giovanni and Paola, and their teenage daughter, Irene (Jasmine Trinca), to come together and perhaps move forward through an act of selflessness.

the son's room review

It's through a collage of scenes, many of them prosaic, that Moretti portrays the suffering Giovanni, Paola and Irene are enduring. It's masterful visual storytelling, with none of his characters ever having to tell us how they feel; rather Moretti's protagonists dance around their grief with passive aggressive arguments over petty matters like the state of their kitchen appliances or in Irene's case, a physical confrontation during a basketball game. If they lived in the countryside you imagine they might retreat to an empty field and scream to the heavens, but they reside in an urban area that rarely affords solitude, hence Giovanni's getting up at the crack of dawn to run by the city's dockyards.

In one beautifully ambiguous moment, Giovanni clutches his wife's arm when she begins to speak about Andrea to friends over dinner. Is Giovanni's gesture meant to show support for Paola or to silence her? It's never made clear, and this willingness to allow Giovanni to be a flawed figure is a large part of the film's strength. While we sympathise with what he's going through, Giovanni doesn't seem like the sort of person we'd want to be around, unlike the warm Paola, who is more honest in her emotions and less self-centred. At the same time, many of us will likely identify with Giovanni's response over Paola's. And that's fine.

the son's room review

Working with cinematographer Giuseppe Lanci, Moretti insists on a naturalistic look for his film, which adds to the realism, to the honest mundanity of the spaces we say goodbye in. The film's protagonists are often pictured surrounded by people, the world carrying on around them even while they're trapped in stasis. In the psychiatry scenes, Moretti's camera and Esmeralda Calabria's editing are more egalitarian than Giovanni, devoting equal time to the tortured shrink and his patients, whose concerns haven't dissipated even if they've grown smaller in his mind.

I've always considered it a mark of a great movie, and of great filmmaking, if you feel like the characters are living beyond the frame, going on with their lives when the camera has panned away to capture something else. In my mind, Giovanni, Paola and Irene are still out there - maybe things haven't entirely worked out for them, maybe Giovanni and Paola got divorced because they reminded one another too much of Andrea, or maybe that's what has kept them together. Like those I've lost in real life, I think about them every once in a while, and while I know Giovanni, Paola and Irene won't return, for 100 minutes or so they were alive, and I'm glad I got to spend it with them.

The Son's Room
is on MUBI UK now.