Directed by Marco Bellocchio Written by Marco Bellocchio, Valia Santella, Edoardo Albinati, Starring Valerio Mastandrea, Bérénice Bejo, Nicolò Cabras, Barbara Ronchi and Guido Caprino
Film Review by Dean Pettipher
Few would fail to recall at least a handful of fragments from the poetic works scribed by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, most notably his assertion that it is “better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.” However, the aforementioned extract has been used so often in the context of romantic love’s more tragic tendencies that its origin at times seems all but forgotten. Tennyson was, in fact, inspired to write that particular extract of verse in the wake of the untimely death of one of his closest friends. Romantic love ostensibly takes such precedence both within real life and cinematic storytelling that love in other guises, certainly by immediate comparison, appears to have been heavily neglected. Marco Bellocchio’s heartfelt adaptation of Massimo Gramellini’s popular autobiographical novel, entitled Sweet Dreams, Little One, raises an at once gleeful and then sombre glass in celebration and examination of a mother’s love for her child. Specifically, the tale explores the sheer depths of the emotional trauma within the child, brought about by the devastating fracture incurred as a result of a cruel separation from his guardian angel. While audiences follow the protagonist from childhood into adulthood and back again in his internal struggle for internal peace through achieving clarity in the outside world, Sweet Dreams (2016) does not quite match the sobering poignancy of Cinema Paradiso, or the unsettling bluntness of the philosophical debates surrounding the purpose of life experienced with The Great Beauty (2013). Nevertheless, there remains a fine painting in motion that gives rise to the value of mothers and their bond with their children, the crucial maintenance of which Bellocchio and his ensemble of artists masterfully present as being a duty and a gift simultaneously for both parties.
Sweet Dreams is a dish topped with enough delicious delicacies to satisfy various shades of audience sensibilities. For starters, Valerio Mastandrea portrays Massimo’s definitive adult phase of life in a clearly calm and composed manner, which, in combination with his brooding appearance, results in a striking resemblance to the great works of Michael Fassbender. Indeed, Valerio’s ability to present the mostly woebegone behaviour of Massimo, employ a vocals with whispering and growl-like qualities, as well as release some unpredictable outbursts of energy, all recall to mind Fassbender’s bold performance as the equally distant protagonist, Brandon, in Shame (2011). Even if Massimo’s own methods of coping with his broken heart and insecure attachments to others are far less shocking than Brandon’s, they appear more than once to be no less desperate, in such a way that ultimately demands genuine sympathy and binding empathy, rather than shallow pity and arrogant frustration in the wake Massimo’s personal struggles. Mastandrea’s memorable moments in front of the camera are propelled forward by the added treats that include the presence of Bérénice Bejo, best known for The Artist (2011) and The Past (2013). Here, in this more present picture, she adopts the less prevalent but no less crucial role of Elisa, serving as one of Massimo’s much-needed emotional remedies, while he seeks in vain to fill the void in his life left by the absent maternal figure.
In spite of so much to warrant an eternal slumber of sweetness, at times the dream begins to fade too soon. With Massimo spending a good degree of time in multiple locations across and beyond Italy, much more variety could have been captured and proudly displayed throughout Massimo’s journey. The cinematography is, without a doubt, fantastic, elegantly capturing the often frightening but always beautiful imagery of internal settings, such as the inside of apartments, stages of war and venues for celebration. All of that time spent pondering within the comfort of the indoors comes at a price, however, for the audience have hardly any opportunities to marvel at the outside world. Gorgeous scenery, magnificent architecture or turbulent weather, for instance, used cautiously of course, might have added yet more depth to the exploration of Massimo’s relationship with, not only his mother, but also every other character who came to play a significant part in his life. In the end, just enough colours are relished by filmmakers in the pivotal interior settings of the story to prevent the thought of a world that is dark and eerie in its entirety and thus inspire hope for Massimo’s discovery of the light in all of its positive forms.
In truth, like many dreams, this commendable collaboration between France and Italy will most likely become so blurred with other dreams, which will take on the forms of much more highly-anticipated features being released later in the year, only essential images and concepts from each one will ultimately remain drifting back and forth across the vast halls of the mind. Yet, while Sweet Dreams might not provide the loudest recurring thoughts for audiences as they have left the movie theatre, one notion, illustrated wonderfully by the film’s insightful exploration into the mother-child relationship, will sing a uniquely mellifluous tune in the vast spaces of those minds that are willing to listen. That notion echoes the sentiment of a famous Italian proverb – “Count your nights by stars, not shadows; count your life with smiles, not tears.”
60TH BFI London Film Festival show times: Thursday 6th October at 20:30 at Curzon Mayfair and Sunday 9th October at 12:15 at Haymarket Cinema