The Son's Room (2001)

Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Son’s Room (2001)

I like to imagine that someone fought passionately for Shrek. It’s an idea that amuses me to no end, thinking about the discussions that went into selecting the best film of Cannes 2001, to deciding upon the eventual recipient of the coveted Palme D’Or. I picture the jury holed up in a windowless room: sleeves rolled to the elbows, ashtrays full of butts, crumbs from baguettes scattered across the table. Julia Ormond yawns—it’s been a long night. Terry Gilliam paces nervously. Liv Ullmann, the famous Norwegian muse of Ingmar Bergman and head of the jury, attempts to keep the peace. There are partisans for multiple sides: Team David Lynch, Team Michael Haneke, people pushing for giants of French cinema like Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette. And then, maybe, there’s the Taiwanese director Edward Yang, stumping with the calm and unassailable logic of Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men for the movie with the farting ogre and the Smash Mouth cover.

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Okay, so it probably didn’t go down like that. In reality, you have to figure that Shrek, perhaps the unlikeliest addition to the main-competition lineup (that year or any other), didn’t have a lot of support in the room, perhaps least of all from the guy who made A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi. But who knows? For Cannes junkies like myself, the awards selection process is a tantalizing mystery, a source of great fascination and speculation. Who pushed for what? Which film almost had a chance, before cooler heads or stronger opinions prevailed? Ullmann described a contentious deliberation process in 2001; according to her, there was “even anger” in the behind-closed-doors conversations. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that room. It would be as gripping, potentially, as the movies being debated.

I’m dying to know, for example, how they landed on The Son’s Room. It’s been argued that the Palme often goes to the film everyone likes and nobody hates—not the passion pick, not the personal favorite of any one member, but the film that’s easiest to agree on. That’s an especially persuasive explanation as to why Ullmann and her jury opted to hand highest honors to Italian writer-director-star Nanni Moretti and his tender drama about a family coping with an unspeakable loss. Now, make no mistake: The Son’s Room was warmly, even ecstatically, received in Cannes—as a study of sudden tragedy and its difficult aftermath, and as a new creative direction for its maker, then and now one of the biggest working names in Italian cinema. But all it takes is a quick look at the rest of the lineup—and the hot-and-cold, sometimes violent reactions those films provoked—to understand how Moretti’s movie could seem like a kind of compromise.

Mulholland Dr. (Photo: Getty Images)

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It was not a chipper year for the festival. I’ve noted before, including straight from the Croisette, the central contradiction of Cannes: the contrast between the decadent frivolity of its social scene and the often gloomy nature of the movies shown there. But that dichotomy was perhaps especially pronounced in ’01. “Hardly one of the 23 films competing tonight for the Palme D’Or would make you leave with a spring in your step or a song in your heart,” wrote Stuart Jeffries of The Observer, before reminding himself and his readers that the fest opened with its most escapist entertainment, Moulin Rouge! Over at IndieWire, Mark Peranson reported, “The question to date is not what films I may have liked or disliked, as ‘like’ is a term inappropriate to many of these works; it’s more what can be tolerated, or, to return to the gustatory, ‘kept down.’” Child killers, mass suicide, the war in Bosnia, sexual degradation: Every screening brought more onscreen horror. The scandals didn’t stop at the main competition; the Un Certain Regard sidebar inspired its own outrage, pitting Claire Denis’ widely, unfairly maligned cannibal romance Trouble Every Day against one of Todd Solondz’s most reliably provocative provocations, Storytelling.

Nanni Moretti at Cannes (Photo: Frank Micelotta Archive/Getty)

Only in a lineup this bleak could a movie about losing a child almost look uplifting. But it had to be more than a comparably, charitably gentle spirit that pushed Moretti to victory. Two weeks into the festival, The Son’s Room was one of few films that also seemed to put everyone on the same page—to unite them in praise, rather than dividing them through controversy. The jury didn’t ignore the lightning rods. Haneke’s brutal-even-for-him The Piano Teacher picked up the Grand Prix (essentially second place), as well as twin acting awards for its fearless stars, Isabelle Huppert and Benoît Magimel. And the Best Director prize was split between two quintessentially American visions that earned mixed reactions: the Coen brothers’ fatalistic, black-and-white noir homage The Man Who Wasn’t There and Lynch’s labyrinthian, puzzle-box Hollywood nightmare Mulholland Dr. Still, the top prize went to The Son’s Room, the first Italian movie to win Cannes in more than two decades. It was a sensible but predictable outcome, if journalists on the scene could be believed.

Both fans and detractors have long labeled Moretti the “Italian Woody Allen,” because he started out making clever comedies (like his commercial breakthrough and Cannes debut, Ecce Bombo), frequently plays the lead role in his own movies, and tends to work in elements of autobiography. To that end, The Son’s Room could be called his Interiors—the first of his films generally unconcerned with making anyone laugh, though unlike Allen, Moretti didn’t deliver his career departure in the form of fetishistic homage. The filmmaker casts himself as Giovanni, a proud husband and father living in picturesque seaside Ancona (another point of departure, given how often his work is set in Rome). Giovanni works as a psychiatrist, and what small traces of (dry) humor the film possesses mostly concern his relationship to his patients, filling appointment hours with detailed descriptions of their dreams, routines, and sexual hang-ups. One wonders if Moretti is reviving that old saw about the therapist scribbling while blithely bored across from the sofa, but The Son’s Room stops short of painting the character’s deadpan restlessness as total indifference, even as it leaves open the question of just how much this doctor is really helping his patients.

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Giovanni has a communicative and sexually satisfying relationship with his wife, Paola (Laura Morante), and he gets along well with his teenage daughter, Irene (Jasmine Trinca), and teenage son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice). The whole family gathers around the kitchen table for meals and participates in car-ride sing-alongs. Giovanni and Paola are supportive, even permissive parents—taking their son’s side when he’s accused of stealing, then forgiving him when the truth comes out; not chasing off their daughter’s boyfriend the minute he turns a study session into an opportunity for (inept) flirting—but that’s largely because they’ve raised respectful kids. So much of the first half hour and change is all about establishing a comfortable status quo. Moretti then shatters it with a bombshell, destroying this family’s world with the news that Andrea—gone scuba-diving with friends—has drowned in a cove.

That links The Son’s Room to a whole lineage of grueling grief dramas, those films about the nigh-impossible business of reassembling a life destroyed by loss. Having shown us his characters at their highest (and happiest), Moretti presents them at their lowest, their sunny coastal backdrop transformed through context. The mundane daily activities that the movie once invested with a sense of unspoken contentment now carry an invisible burden; the filmmaker’s casually extended long takes, following Giovanni around town, take on a new air of struggle, every footstep landing harder. Moretti doesn’t spare us the horror of despair: One moment leaps from Andrea’s coffin being sealed shut (the finality of the act is deafening) to Paola sobbing in bed, the transition seamlessly achieved by matching the mother’s anguished howling to the high-pitched whine of the nails being drilled into place.

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At Cannes, many lauded The Son’s Room for its restraint and lack of sentimentality. I’m not entirely convinced on that point. Certainly, Moretti’s measured performance helps keep the melodrama at bay. “You’re so calm and serene,” one of Giovanni’s patients tells him, and the character’s soothing professionalism carries over to his personal life; he’s a model of composure, the centered modern man. What we’re watching, then, isn’t just a film about a father in mourning, but one about a psychiatrist fending off a meltdown. Where once Giovanni’s patients merely challenged his patience, they now enhance the magnitude of his own problems. How can he listen to them gripe about their petty issues when he’s going through perhaps the greatest emotional crucible a person can endure?

But if Moretti the actor boldly resists pleading for our tears, Moretti the writer and director occasionally stoops to actively campaigning for them. The score by Nicola Piovani, who also composed the music for Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, is a cloying and persistent little tinkle of piano, slathered indiscriminately over whole passages. The Son’s Room also skids into maudlin territory in its final stretch, when an unexpected letter illuminates a corner of Andrea’s life unknown to the rest of his family. This last act makes a dramatic sense, offering Giovanni, Paola, and Irene a certain measure of closure and even catharsis. But are closure and catharsis what this particular story required? The ending breaks with Moretti’s admirable every-day-at-a-time depiction of the grieving process, forcing a breakthrough. Heretofore committed to prickly realism, the film settles for a therapeutic upshot.

But maybe that could be why, ultimately, The Son’s Room resonated at Cannes, including with the artists that handed it the Palme. This is, for the most part, an honest, perceptive film—“It touches on something real” screams the Los Angeles Times pull quote splashed across the Miramax DVD cover, and that oddly faint praise about sums up the movie’s appeal. But unlike a lot of what screened at the festival in 2001, scandalizing critics and industry-types alike, The Son’s Room doesn’t just drown its viewers in said tough reality. It offers a kind of reprieve—the parting suggestion that things could eventually be okay for these characters, which is more than anyone could say for some of Cannes 2001’s other unlucky souls, rotting in motel rooms, marching to electric chairs, and waiting alone on a porch for a resolution that will never arrive. Moretti’s film ends on a beach, in the glow of daylight. Reaching that ending must have felt a little like stepping out of the darkness of an auditorium and into the sunshine of Southern France. Who were Ullmann and company to deny that sensation? Of course, if all they were seeking was a boost in spirit, they had other options. You know, like the one that ends with a group karaoke performance of “I’m A Believer.”

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Did it deserve to win? Not in a year this good. Cannes ’01 was rich with more adventurous and more formally accomplished movies. “The truth is that art triumphed over commerce in the festival’s most prestigious section, as it surely should at Cannes,” noted The Guardian’s correspondent. Indeed, it was a competition lineup that mostly lived up, pitting masters like Hou Hsiao-hsien against Nouvelle Vague veterans, and bold American spectacles against more intimate international experiments. For sheer audacity—and for its volume of unforgettable moments, from the rapturously romantic sex scene to the heart-stopping Winkie’s Diner nightmare—Mulholland Dr. probably deserved the prize. (To say that the film’s reputation has grown since would be a massive understatement; it’s now routinely voted the best movie of the new millennium in critic polls.) But my favorite film of the bunch is probably Tsai Ming-liang’s delicate, offbeat study of loneliness and cultural displacement, What Time Is It There?—a film every bit as human-scaled as Moretti’s, but much more idiosyncratic.

Next up: For the jury had eyes and chose Orson Welles’ Othello.