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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2002

And the world keeps turning

La Stanza del figlio

Rating: * * * *
Japanese title: Musuko no Heya
Director: Nanni Moretti
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: Italian
Now showing

Unrelenting, no-exit grief is the theme of "La Stanza del figlio (The Son's Room)," the winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year. A small, quiet film with a handful of main characters and sparse dialogue, it traces a family's bereavement without any attempt at consolation.

News photo
Nanni Moretti and Giuseppe Sanfelice in "La Stanza del figlio"

Nanni Moretti writes, directs and stars. Viewers familiar with his previous films ("Caro diario," "Aprile") will be surprised this time by the absence of witty conversations and playful insights into modern life. Moretti has been dubbed Italy's Woody Allen, but "The Son's Room" is a departure from this and other past categorizations -- the film is disciplined and sincere, turning what could have been Sentimentality on Max into a studied analysis of love and loss.

Moretti plays Giovanni, a successful psychiatrist living in an idyllic Italian town near the Adriatic Sea with beautiful wife Paola (Laura Morante) and two teenage children -- Irene (Jasmine Trinca) and Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice). Theirs is a comfortable, bourgeois existence that Giovanni has never had to question; it is totally remote from the problems that his patients pour out to him everyday in his clinic. Then one Sunday, Giovanni cancels a jogging date with Andrea to see a patient. Andrea makes fresh plans to go diving with his friends, has an accident and never returns. The remaining family members are devastated and do not know how to deal with their grief.

Giovanni is affected the worst, playing "what-if-I-had-gone-jogging?" scenarios in his head, torturing himself and loved ones. As the days go by, the once close-knit family circle disintegrates, each receding into a private sadness not shared by the others. Giovanni finds it difficult to concentrate on his patient's problems and announces to Paola that he must quit the practice. As time stands still in their house, Paola finds a letter addressed to her late son. It's from a girl named Arianna (Sofia Vigliar), and the letter reveals her love for Andrea, even though they had met only once on a camping trip. Paola insists on contacting Arianna to tell her the news ("So Andrea had a girlfriend! This is wonderful!"), but Giovanni cannot bring himself to do so.

Moretti created this story after being diagnosed with nonmalignant cancer. His gaze on the fragility of daily life, always vulnerable to the forces of random disaster, is unwavering and honest. Giovanni cannot reconcile himself to the fact that one minute, his son was alive; the next minute, he was dead. In his mind, he keeps scrolling back time to when Andreas invited him to go jogging, as if by doing so this will somehow restore his son back to life.

Stuck in this inner landscape, Giovanni can find no solace in other people. The priest at the funeral mass who tries to give meaning to his loss -- "If we knew when the thief would come, we would not be robbed" -- enrages Giovanni by the "sheer stupidity" of his words. His patients' awkward attempts at comforting only enhance his feelings of disconnection. Cut off from the world, he goes alone to an amusement park and rides the up-down car (the one that shoots up and comes down with alarming speed), the camera staring at his face, frozen in helplessness, regret, nausea.

It is Arianna who provides the family with a little breathing space. After Paola telephones to tell her the news, she arrives at the house a few days later, and it is as if a small part of Andrea has come back. After chatting with Arianna and being shown some photographs that Andrea had taken of his room ("He wanted to show me what his room looked like"), the tearful couple are practically ready to adopt her as their own. Arianna, however, quickly dispels their illusion by saying she has a friend waiting downstairs. She is hitchhiking with him to France, and they had just stopped by so that she could say hello.

Arianna's casualness is in direct contrast with the passionate declaration of love she had written to Andrea, underscoring the fact that time, which has come to a standstill for Giovanni and his family, has marched on for the rest of the world. This realization pulls Giovanni back to reality, and for the first time since Andrea's death, he feels some contact with the outer world.

Moretti demonstrates his sublime restraint, by withholding any relief or happiness that would have descended upon the family in other movies. He simply knows (as we all do) that things don't work this way. A loved one dies, and the world changes, never to be the same again. Some sorrows are inconsolable, and "The Son's Room" doesn't shirk from facing this awful truth.

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