I love the work of Italian actor and director Nanni Moretti, that subtly animated stillness he possesses. I could happily spend my time watching him eat pasta, drive a scooter or simply sit on a bench doing nothing very much at all.
So why did his most recent film, Quiet Chaos, out this month on DVD, and touching, quite coincidentally on many themes currently in the news, from the deaths of mothers of young children to fatal freak falls, disturb me so?
According to the film’s many, largely admiring, critics, it’s a tender portrayal of the soothing power of routine in dealing with grief, an off beat film about a man coming to terms with deep loss.
Pietro, a top television executive, suddenly widowed, finds he cannot pick up the pieces of his life. Unable to leave his ten year old daughter at school, he spends every day sitting on a bench in the park opposite her classroom. In the process, he has any number of interesting encounters with everyone from a local restaurant owner to a beautiful young woman who walks an enormous shaggy dog past his bench every day. There’s an almost painfully realistic scene ( except we’re not sure if it is, in fact, fantasy) of Pietro having sex with a woman he saved from drowning on the day of his wife’s death, from a freak fall.
Death suffuses this film, and it is certainly billed as a tender meditation on the unexpected ways that loss can hit us, and how parenthood can save us. Except I am really not sure that this is a film about loss and love at all. And while it may be a film about fathers, it certainly has precious little to say about mothers.
Pietro’s dead wife is the most resounding non-presence in a film that I can recall: barely glimpsed, hardly referred to, almost totally unmourned. Her sister, whom we learn Pietro had a brief affair with – Go Pietro! – is presented as little short of a nutcase.
Leaving aside, for a moment, the banal brutality of a possibly loveless marriage, can we sidestep with equal equanimity, the loss of a mother to a ten year old child? Father and daughter continue to live tranquilly in a lovely designer like apartment, where they eat delicious food, prepared by a chef.
It’s a wholly unrealistic portrait of parenthood, with Claudia seemingly totally unperturbed by the absence of her mother. Meanwhile, strangers hear of Pietro’s odd vigil outside the school and talk of him, across tables in smart restaurants, as a popular hero.
We know, of course, that in real life, the loss of loved ones, the loss of mothers, especially to young children, wreaks devastation. We know, too, that art is not there to faithfully depict the real. It can – and should – play about with situations and feelings, like paints all messed up on a canvas.
Even so, I would argue that there is an alternative reading of Quiet Chaos; that this is a film about how just how easy it is for men to wipe women from their consciousness, except to fulfill the passing needs of masculine appetite and vanity.
I may well be missing the point of a subtle art house film but in its cool celebration of all that is young, lovely, and ‘other’ and its mockery and marginalisation of real, known, struggling women, I felt unsettled and cross on behalf of mothers and the middle aged everywhere.