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John Turturro steals the show in ‘Mia Madre’

Film director Margherita (Margherita Guy) participates in a press conference with her film's star Barry Huggins (John Turturro) in a scene from "Mia Madre" | COURTESY MUSIC BOX FILMS

The biggest reason to see the Italian dramedy “Mia Madre” can be summed up in two words: John Turturro.

The Emmy-winning and Golden Globe-nominated actor is a gem in Nanni Moretti’s latest film, in the role of a boisterous American film star tapped for a leading role in a celebrated Italian filmmaker’s latest drama. That filmmaker is Margherita (played by veteran Italian actress Margherita Buy), who doesn’t quite know what to make of Barry Huggins (Turturro) from the moment she picks him up at the Rome airport and he falls asleep in her car (he dreams Kevin Spacey wants to kill him in a hilarious, quirky passage).

In fact, Margherita doesn’t quite know what to make of much in her life. Struggling to hold it together as she directs cast and crew, Margherita is also dealing with the impending death of her bedridden mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), whom she obviously adores; the breakup of her romance with the actor Vittorio (Enrico Ianniello), and her relationships with her brother Giovanni (the handsome filmmaker Moretti, pulling double duty here) and her daughter Livia (the engaging Beatrice Mancini).

Margherita also suffers from waking nightmares (in a few instances they are more distracting than interesting) and emotional tantrums (both internally and externally) that are poised to rip her in two. But this is not a weak woman by any means. Moretti has crafted a Margherita who is strong and determined.

That’s not to say she does not have her “moments” — the quietly reserved “Come to Jesus” chat with her former lover Vittorio, and the explosive passage involving Margherita and her location crew filming a driving sequence with the frazzled Barry (Turturro is beyond priceless in the scene). The film’s best tirade, however, comes courtesy of Turturro (who steals every scene he inhabits) as Barry blows up at Margherita, calling the film, the script, her direction and just about everybody else within earshot “a big piece of s—.” For a fleeting moment, Margherita sees her life flash before her eyes.

Giovanni (Nanni Moretti) and his sister Margherita (Margherita Buy) discuss their dying mother in “Mia Madre.” | MUSIC BOX FILMS
Giovanni (Nanni Moretti) and his sister Margherita (Margherita Buy) discuss their dying mother in “Mia Madre.” | MUSIC BOX FILMS

Moretti wrote the screenplay following the death of his mother (who, like Ada, was a beloved classical languages teacher for many years). That the film reflects the director-screenwriter’s personal state of mind is clear. That Margherita represents him is not quite so obvious, though it’s easy to see fragments of Moretti’s real life sprinkled throughout her character. At one point, Margherita is asked at a press conference if her film will appeal to the public’s conscience in today’s world. While the director gives a pat answer, in her mind the subtitles “reply”: “Everybody thinks that I have the knack of understanding what is going on, of interpreting reality. But I don’t understand anything anymore.” One too many devices at play here.

Margherita is oblivious, or perhaps too afraid, to come to terms with her precarious emotional state. “You think you’re attentive, but you don’t see what’s around you,” Vittorio lectures her. And that’s because, as her brother Giovanni finally makes her realize, she just stopped listening. Is that her salvation mechanism, the only way to avoid a total nervous breakdown? Well, yes, but in a way, the breakdown has already occurred. As she is fond of telling her actors (who never understand the puzzling directive), “Play the character — and stand next to the character.” Margherita is the epitome of that dichotomy; she has been on the outside looking in for a long time. In the end, what she sees is not pretty, just pretty eye-opening.

★★1⁄2

Music Box Films presents a film directed by Nanni Moretti. Written by Francesco Piccolo, Valia Santella and Moretti. Running time: 107 minutes. Rated R (for language). In Italian with English subtitles. Opening Friday at the Music Box Theatre and Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.