To mark the release of Nanni Moretti’s acclaimed new film Mia Madre, we chart the cult movies that best explore a maternal bond
After the wry exuberance of his Berlusconian feature, The Caiman, and the affable farce of Habemus Papam, famed Italian auteur Nanni Moretti dives back into the autobiographical realm of his moving, Palm d’Or-winning The Son’s Room with an insightful new comedy-drama. Inspired by the Moretti’s own experience of losing his mother during the filming of one of his movies, Mia Madre is the story of a filmmaker trying to succeed in her career while dealing with a breakup, a disengaged teenage daughter and a hospitalised mother.
Pervaded by an unmistakable sense of intimacy and serious storytelling, the film is brightened by the ludicrous rattle between the protagonist Margherita (Margherita Buy) and the leading actor in her movie, American star Barry Huggins (John Turturro) and her tender relationship with her brother (Nanni Moretti) who always seems to be one step ahead of her. Blending refined cinematography with universal emotions, the film tackles tragedy and loss in a candid and modest way.
From Euripides to Flaubert, Nabokov to Disney, the maternal figure has always been given huge narrative significance. And so, in honour of a rather exceptional bond we bring you some of our favourite directors that have tapped the subject in the most touching, truthful, entertaining and upsetting of ways.
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Adapted from a novel of the same name, James L. Brooks’ classic follows Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine), a hard-to-please and intrusive widowed mother in search of love, and her daughter Emma (Debra Winger) as they come to terms with life’s highs and lows. While Emma tries to overcome her marriage difficulties, Aurora starts dating retired astronaut and womanising neighbour Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). Nominated for 11 Academy Awards – it won in five categories – the film chronicles Aurora and Emma’s love-hate relationship over several years as they pursue love and joy in their own different ways.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)
Following the sudden death of her uncaring husband, Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn), a submissive housewife, hits the road with her preteen son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) to California to follow her childhood dream of becoming a singer. In his first Hollywood studio venture, Martin Scorsese delivers a surprisingly discerning and personal movie, possibly one of the most delightful on the subject of women’s self-discovery and independence.
Mervyn LeRoy’s musical comedy-drama is the story of a resolute and overbearing stage mother, Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russell) and her tireless attempt to live out her dreams through her two daughters. Due to Rose’s ruthless and interfering attitude, mother and daughters will eventually grow apart. After putting all her efforts into making a success of her girls, as her older daughter Louise (Natalie Wood) raises to stardom as burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, Mama Rose ends up resenting her for being famous, proving that chasing lost dreams through one’s children isn’t always the best way to make up for one’s failures.
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Cher in the role of a laid-back biker mother, the film is based on the true story of Roy L. "Rocky" Dennis, a teenage boy affected by craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, an exceptionally rare bone syndrome that causes cranial deformity. Despite being treated with fear, compassion and embarrassment by society, Rocky overcomes pain and discrimination with the fierce support of her mother Rusty. In this moving tale of unconditional love and high spirits, Cher’s award-winning performance of a protective and tender mother shows how love goes where hate cannot.
Two Women (1960)
A cinematic adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s eponymous novel, Two Women follows Cesira (Sophia Loren), a widowed Roman mother, and her 13-year-old daughter Rosetta as they strive to survive the atrocities of World War II. While Cesira will stop at nothing to protect her daughter, a devastating incident will cause her to suffer from a breakdown. Loren’s dramatic interpretation of a passionate mother earned her an Oscar for Best Actress, the first to be awarded to a woman for a non-English speaking film. Heartbreaking and compelling, Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece is hailed as a staple of Italian neorealist cinema.
Enfant prodige of Canadian art cinema Xavier Dolan comes full circle to the maternal territory of his debut feature I Killed My Mother (2009) with his latest film Mommy, released last year to international acclaim. In Dolan’s heartfelt drama, Diane (Anne Dorval) is a feisty single mother trying to deal with her unpredictable and troubled ADHD teenage son Steve (up-and-comer Antoine Olivier Pilon), all while struggling to make ends meet. Love, dedication and raw emotions are acted to tearful effect in this powerful depiction of a modern-day family.
Life is Beautiful (1997)
At once uplifting and tragic, Roberto Benigni’s unforgettable tragicomedy tells the story of an Italian-Jewish family victim of the Holocaust and their spiritual triumph over the horrors of the war. A sob story of hope, comicality and imagination, Benigni’s three-time Oscar-winning tale proves that love and optimism are the most powerful weapons, shedding some light on the beauty of life regardless of the circumstances we live in – a truth that is summed up in the movie’s tear jerking finale, where little Giosuè cheers “We won!” as he reunites with his mother.
All About My Mother (1999)
Manuela (Cecilia Roth) is a hard-working single parent who finds herself dealing with a tragedy a mother should never face, the death of her child. On his seventeenth birthday, Esteban is struck and killed by a car. Emotionally shattered, Manuela travels to Barcelona to tell the boy's transgender father that the son he never knew he had is dead. There she becomes involved with a bunch of old friends and their sentimental clutter and embraces second-chance motherhood with her adopted child. Blissful and emotional, Pedro Almodóvar’s Oscar-winning cinematic soap opera shows us that family and home are where we find them.
Savage Grace (2007)
Deeply disturbing yet tremendously performed, Tom Kalin’s tastefully composed drama is based on the real-life story of wealthy American socialite and artist Barbara Daly Baekeland (Julianne Moore) and her son Antony (Eddie Redmayne). Sickeningly erotic and cruelly compelling, it portrays the incestuous love triangle between a tormented mother, a dissatisfied father and a gay and schizophrenic son – a deeply dysfunctional relationship, with all the ingredients for a tragedy.
If you don’t wash your eyes with tears in front of Susan Sarandon in the role of Jackie, a terminally ill mother of two forced to settle to her ex-husband’s new partner (Julia Roberts) then you’re probably an automaton. Not only does Jackie need to accept the new girlfriend, but she also has to cope with the excruciating reality of not getting to see her kids grow up. As she learns to overcome resentment for the sake of her children, Jackie shows us we shouldn’t waste time wringing our hands over fate in this timeless story of growth, trust and unlikely friendship.