THE SONíS ROOM

Directed by Nanni Moretti

Written by Moretti, Linda Ferri and Heidrun Schleef

With Moretti, Laura Morante, Giuseppe Sanfelice and Jasmine Trinica

Distributed by Miramax

**1/2 


A hugely popular figure in Italy (as much as a leftist public intellectual as for his films), Nanni Moretti used to be a well-kept secret in the U.S., even as he was adopted by French critics in the 80s as their ďman in Italy.Ē While the generation of Italian directors who debuted in the 60s petered out, Moretti films like SOGNI DíORO and PALOMBELLA ROSSA  spoke for the anger of the generation that followed them (and didnít have a real voice in cinema.)   The biggest cliché about Moretti is that heís Italyís Woody Allen, but early Albert Brooks might be a better comparison. Morettiís neuroses are rarely cute. Like Brooks, Moretti isnít afraid to be abrasive or make himself look like a jerk, even while playing himself (as in the first third of his fictional diary film, CARO DIARIO.)

Then, everything changed at Cannes last year. Morettiís previous film (and second fictional diary) APRILE didnít even get very far onto the international festival circuit. THE SONíS ROOM won the Palme DíOr and enticed Harvey Weinstein to open his checkbook. (In a good cop/bad cop move, the Cannes jury also gave three prizes to Michael Hanekeís literally lacerating THE PIANO TEACHER.) The backlash has begun among North American critics: CINEMA SCOPE editor Mark Peranson described THE SONíS ROOM as the cinematic equivalent of a velvet painting of a child crying. These days, Iím always suspicious when a foreign film gets acquired by Miramax, given that theyíve recently brought us little but genteel trifles like THE TASTE OF OTHERS and ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS. Has Moretti sold out in a quest for worldwide distribution? Become the Angelikaís ďman in ItalyĒ?

Giovanni (Moretti) is a psychiatrist with a small but steady base of clients, a loving wife (Laura Morante) and two teenage children, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) and Irene (Jasmine Trinca). Their life is pretty placid: the sex-addict and obsessive-compulsive disorder patients of Giovanni seem far more interesting. Even the few hints of trouble - Andreaís theft of a fossil from school - donít amount to much. The family gets along so well that they even sing along in unison to the radio in the car. (In an American film, they would never even agree on the station.) All  this changes when Andrea drowns in a diving accident.

In APRILE, Moretti documented his own belated entry into fatherhood. Knowing his background, THE SONíS ROOM comes across as the attempt of a former rebel to understand upper-middle-class family life. His prickly wit only comes across in Giovanniís therapy sessions, and itís missed.

If families as untroubled as Giovanniís exist, Iím happy for them, but their lives donít make for thrilling drama. Until Andreaís death, THE SONíS ROOM is  chamomile tea for the eyes: perfect programming for the PAX Channel, were it dubbed into English. When Giovanni fantasizes telling a patient ďIím just as boring as you,Ē heís simply being honest. However, the filmís real subject may be the discreet complacency of the bourgeoisie. As awful as Andreaís death is, it gets the family out of their shells, upsetting Giovanniís routine at work, Ireneís at school and forces them to get to know a girl who had fallen in love with him. In retrospect, the blandness of the first third sets the stage for the turmoil that comes in its wake.

To answer the question raised in my second paragraph, THE SONíS ROOM strikes me as half sell-out, half step forward. Both as a director and actor, Morettiís really challenging himself by leaving behind his 80s alter ego  Michele - a different character sharing the same name in each film of that period - and the autobiographical roots of CARO DIARIO and APRILE. This new direction is a mixed bag. The second half of THE SONíS ROOM sometimes strikes resonant chords, but all too often seems lazy. A handful of scenes convey the familyís despondency powerfully and subtly: Ireneís brawl at her schoolís basketball game, Giovanniís trip  to a carnival, where he gazes around as if its simulations of danger might offer some insights into his loss, and his obsessive repetition of a 10-second loop on a CD that reminds him of Andrea.

The rest of the time, Moretti piles on crying jags as if they automatically add up to genuine emotion. The finale strikes a grace note that owes everything to Brian Enoís calming ballad ďBy This River.Ē Iím usually a fan of the soundtrack-as-mixtape approach - and Iím certainly an Eno fan - but the filmís use of this song to set  its mood just seems cheap. If THE SONíS ROOM were as unsophisticated as Peransonís description makes it sound, its compromises would be a lot less troubling. Thereís enough worth in it to make me suspect that Moretti could make a first-class melodrama if he could either give up all his reserve or dig into this material with some rigor (a la the best parts of IN THE BEDROOM). As it stands,  THE SONíS ROOM is neither fish nor fowl.