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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Intermediate Italian BY JESSE LICHTENSTEIN The Son’s Room Directed by Nanni Moretti Italian for Beginners Directed by Lone Scherfig S eduction is the oldest art. In moviesstill a relatively young artsadness is often the seduc er, but frequently its methods are crude. We’re easily mesmer ized when the movie paints a portrait of youth, happiness, and unconcern, and easily crushed when it all is destroyed by cruel, early death. The whole effect often seems cynically calculated, yet we usually take the bait. We cry the tears we are meant to cry, but when the movie ends we feel a little bit dirty, used, and guilty for our own complicity. Being called a “tearjerker” is every bit as derogatory and defiling as it soundsa director’s hamhanded manipulation of an audience in a darkened theater. It’s a risk that every sad movie runs. The Son’s Room is a very sad movie about a family that loses a son and then must cope with the loss \(its title and premise evoke the multi-Oscar-nominated movie has no shortage of weeping, of breakdowns, of relationships pushed to the brink by the force of the tragedy. This is the stuff tearjerkers are made of, and yet all of it is done equably, and with a mercifully skilled, light hand. In terms of tone, the film is a departure for Italian director Nanni Moretti. Until now, he has not been well-known in the United States, where critics have compared him to Woody Allen; the comparison has some basis. Like Woody, Nanni is an auteur-actor who methodically works through his neuroses and predilections on-screen. He, too, is enamored of old movies and his hometown, both of which have supporting roles in his films. In Palombella Rossa left-wing politician who slowly articulates his concerns about Italy’s crumbling Communist Party during the course of an absurdist water polo match that is routinely interrupted by scenes from Doctor Zhivago. The deservedly better-known Caro Diario film in three chapters, the first of which is a love letter to the various neighborhoods of Rome that Moretti tours on his Vespa. The second part is a visit to three Italian islands with his friend, a Joyce scholar, as Moretti tries to find peace and quiet to work on writing his next movie. He fails utterly, and his friend goes mad for lack of TV and the inability to monitor the progress of The Bold and the Beautiful. The last chapter is a reworking of Moretti’s own medical battle that begins with an itch that won’t go away and leads to the diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease. He eventually beats the disease, but the story is told with a heavy dosage of black comedy. Moretti relives his dealings with a gaggle of contradictory, over-prescribing physicians, and the movie ends with him in a cafe surrounded by a startling array of useless pharmacopoeia, ordering a glass of water. Caro Diario is a beautiful film and typical Moretti: desultory, self-effacing, romantic, absurd, political, and bitingly funny. The Son’s Room, however, is both more conventional and more mature filmmaking. The non-sequiturs are gone and the episodic non-plot has also been abandoned. Moretti plays Giovanni, a psychologist who is dedicated to his work and whose patients are devoted to him. His stunning wife, Paola, played by Laura Morante, works in publishing. Along with their two charming teenaged children they eat meals as a family, tease each other, sing in the car. Life is not perfectthe son, Andrea, has been accused of stealing something at school, and Giovanni is weary with some of his patientsbut life is good. And then Andrea dies in a scuba diving accident, and the world comes undone. Giovanni is tortured by what might have been. If only he hadn’t dutifully gone off to see one of his desperate, pathetic patients who called him away from breakfast, he would have taken a walk with Andrea; his son wouldn’t have gone diving.The recriminations are here, but Moretti does not reduce his characters to caricatures of grief. Giovanni goes to investigate the diving equipment that Andrea used, certain there must have been some defect. A less skillful movie would have made him a delusional crusader, alienating his wife and daughter until the family dissolves and he is left a broken man. The Son’s Room is more subtle; the sadness and rage come in waves, as do the characters’ weak moments. When Paola discovers that Andrea had a nascent relationship with a girl at summer camp, her desperation to meet the girl is inappropriate, uncomfortable for all around her, but utterly convincing. Here Moretti is interested in a family’s experience of grief, and how this breaks down into individual agony that strains all familiar bonds. The movie’s gesture towards happiness, when it comes at last, is a delicate and tentative oneone that does not pretend to erase what has come before it. At some point In the Bedroom ceases to be a movie about grieving and becomes a thriller of revenge. The Son’s Room does not make this shift, does not 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/29/02