The films of Italian writer/director Nanni Moretti primarily revolve around his own ego and then secondarily around questions of moral responsibility, specifically the extent to which we function in society. Moretti himself plays a recurring role in almost all his films: the empathetic and, as he puts it in Dear Diary (1993), "whimsical" skeptic. In I Am Self Sufficient (1978), a single father struggles to come to terms with the fact that his goofy, sub-Brechtian theater troupe isn't really reaching its minuscule audience. And in The Mass is Over (1985), a priest (also Moretti) leaves his sheltered island home to pursue his vocation but finds himself easily distracted and frequently uninterested in his congregants' problems.
I talked with Moretti with the help of an Italian interpreter last week, and my discussion only confirmed what I already knew after watching his films: Moretti is his own best character. Through his characters' various permutations, Moretti, whose new film We Have a Pope (2011) opens at Manhattan's IFC Center this Friday, often wavers between introspective self-seriousness and manic self-parody. In that way, he's a worthy acolyte of poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose death Moretti commemorates in Dear Diary when his character takes a long Vespa ride around and beyond Rome's city limits. In films like The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and Hawks and Sparrows (1973), Pasolini questioned whether it was possible to achieve the kind of utopian ideals that intellectual discourse often strives for. The same is true of Moretti's movies, though he often begins by poking fun at himself.
In his movies, Moretti defines himself in opposition to the institutions he is a part of. Even in The Son's Room (2001), a deceptively tranquil family drama that also won the Palme D'Or, Moretti voices frustration with being part of a unit, in this case a nuclear family. Even before Moretti's character’s son abruptly dies, Moretti's character wonders just how involved he can be in his family's collective life. In The Mass is Over, Moretti's stand-in is just as easily uncomfortable with his calling as a priest. He plays soccer with some local children when he doesn't want to listen to a plaintive parishioner and turns up the radio when another congregant tries to confess to him. Moretti often laments that he can't be there for his film's supporting characters. But that semi-comic resistance is a big part of his cinematic persona's charm.
According to Moretti, there's a problematically narcissistic tendency towards self-pity amongst Italians and Italian movies that he parodically embraced when he made Dear Diary. Moretti described Dear Diary to me as his way of spoofing an ongoing trend in contemporary Italian films, where 40 year-old men act like blameless "victims" and lament about being unable to leave behind their difficult jobs, their needy families or their backwards countries. "This feeling of being a victim and not assuming one’s responsibility is a constant in Italians," Moretti told me. "Dear Diary makes fun of that attitude of feeling like a victim for 40 year-olds, for 20 year-olds, for 60 year-olds—it’s still present. It’s a model [of thinking] that still exists and it’s still a problem with the Italian personality. The fault is always someone else’s. If a match is lost, it’s the fault of the referee."
Then again, through his films, Moretti expresses his own personal frustrations with being an atheist (in The Mass is Over and We Have a Pope), a Communist (in I Am Self Sufficient and Moretti's 1989 masterpiece, Red Lob), a lover of theater and films (in I am Self Sufficient and Dear Diary), and someone that often finds himself at odds with everyone around him (all of the above). This is funniest whenever Moretti's character despairs over popular contemporary cinema. In I Am Self Sufficient, Moretti works himself up into a frenzy at the thought that Seven Beauties was, upon its original 1975 theatrical release in Italy, hailed as the start of a new kind of Italian cinema. He goes further in Dear Diary, in which he tracks down one of the Italian critics that gushed over the 1986 American serial killer pic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and brings the poor reviewer to tears by reading his laudatory review back to him. Funnily enough, Moretti is reluctant to talk about Henry. When I tried to make an admittedly long-winded parallel between the "psychological simplicity" of characters in both his films and in Henry, Moretti became comically antsy. Even now, there are some films that you simply can't talk to Moretti about, it seems.
Still, it's not especially surprising to see Moretti act in real-life as one of his characters might in his movies. When asked about how he was preparing for this year's Cannes Film Festival, where he will lead the jury of the festival's main competition, he instinctively responded with a self-deprecating joke. "I’d like to go to Cannes and buy some suits, lose a kilo or two, learn a little English," Moretti said. "I won't be able do do any of these things. The suits, yes, but the English and the weight, no." Moretti went on to tell me at some length what participating in film festivals as a juror has been like for him. But, just like when he jokingly corrected his interpreter, who initially mistranslated "referee" as "coach," Moretti behaved exactly, well, like himself. He's a self-possessed boy philosopher who carries the weight of his world on his shoulders with unabashed gaiety. A victim, he ain't.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.