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My Mother's Smile

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My Mother's Smile

Director: Marco Bellocchio
Runtime: 103 minutes
Cast: Sergio Castellitto, Jacqueline Lustig, Chiara Conti

A heartfelt provocation that created a stir in Italy upon its 2002 release, Marco Bellocchio's My Mother's Smile opens with a child angrily asking God to leave him alone for a little bit. It's a lot of pressure, being always seen by the Almighty, and it might be best for all concerned if God just took a little break. The film offers a more mature variation on the same sentiment: Unspooling over an eventful 24 hours, it shifts the focus to the boy's father (Sergio Castellitto), a painter whose lapsed faith has done little to keep religion out of his life.

It doesn't help that his mother, a woman of great faith, is up for sainthood: Her death at the hands of Castellitto's mentally ill brother has made some in the church view her as a martyr. The advantages of having a saint in the family haven't exactly escaped those around Castellitto, either, and they've kept the possibility a secret from him, lest his impiety throw a wrench in the works. When he finds out, he begins wandering Rome, trying to figure out what his mother's veneration would mean, while simultaneously sniffing out his friends and relatives' hidden motives.

He finds plenty—the fact that seemingly everyone has a selfish reason for his mother's canonization is a flaw built into the film. But Bellocchio has higher aims than simple mockery. He shrouds the film in darkness that suggests Castellitto's crisis of conscience has somehow leaked into the world at large, a mood matched by Castellitto's deeply considered performance. As absurd as the situation gets—and the film occasionally launches into surreal asides that only heighten the absurdity—director and star both keep it grounded in the situation's emotions. Castellitto's feelings for his mother remain as unresolved as his thoughts on God. The absence of both doesn't make them any easier to escape, and the film becomes less about mocking an unshared faith than about learning to live around it.

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