Sweet Dreams, 2016.
Directed by Marco Bellochio
Starring Valerio Mastandrea, Berenice Bejo, Nicolo Cabras, Dario Del Paro, Guido Caprino and Barbara Ronchi.
Massimo’s idyllic childhood is shattered by the sudden death of his mother. Refusing to accept what’s happened, he carries his grief throughout his adolescence and into adulthood, when he becomes a journalist. Working on La Stampa, he’s asked to reply to a letter from a reader who professes to hate his mother and it paves the way for him to start coming to terms with his loss.
Two thirds through Sweet Dreams comes the sequence which is the film’s real starting point. Journalist Massimo (Valerio Mastandrea) specialises in sport but the editor on La Stampa asks him to respond to a reader’s letter. It’s from a man who says he hates his mother because she rules and stifles his life. Massimo’s own mother died when he was a young boy, so his reply puts a different perspective on the issue and causes a sensation. He’s deluged with letters reacting to what he’s said and he becomes a minor celebrity overnight. But, more importantly for him, it’s the start of confronting all his feelings about his mother’s death and facing the truth.
But before all that, we’ve already gone through a large chunk of Massimo’s life. His relationship with his adored mother but who is, at best, distracted and at worst, deeply unhappy. Her sudden death and his refusal to accept it turns him into a quiet adolescent and adult, somebody who keeps his true feelings buried deep, but because of an abiding love of football that came from being brought up next to the Torino stadium, he becomes a sports journalist. Success takes him into other areas of reporting, including war zones but his personal life is less successful: he can’t commit to relationships, has a distant relationship with his father and suffers from panic attacks when memories of his mother come to the fore. One of these leads to him meeting doctor Elisa (Berenice Bejo), who turns out to be more significant in his life.
The film avoids a linear structure, preferring to zig zag in time, from Massimo’s childhood in the late 50s and early 60s to his adult life in the 90s. Each section is linked to the other, sometimes rather tenuously: the teenage boy having his tears wiped away by his father gives way to a scene in the pouring rain. The connections help, but don’t quite conceal that the story is told in such a disjointed fashion that becomes mildly irritating.
It also loves to echo itself to reinforce its themes. The idea of falling from a great height makes its first appearance when Massimo and his mother are watching an old movie on TV. Later, the boy demonstrates the force of gravity by dropping an object from the window of the family home, a fifth floor apartment. Elisa dives from the highest platform at the swimming pool. There’s many more like these and they’re all laden with significance. And the themes are numerous: the influence of mothers on their sons, the consequences of not telling the truth, the unpredictable nature of memories ….. take your pick.
While it’s rich in ideas and emotion, deeply absorbing and boasts impressive performances, especially from Valerio Mastandrea as the adult Massimo and Nicolo Cabras as his young counterpart, Sweet Dreams has one big drawback. Its length. It simply doesn’t need to be this long as some sequences are primarily concerned with echoing each other. Massimo’s experiences in Sarajevo contribute little to the story and are there simply for one image – a photographer taking a shot of little boy against the backdrop of his murdered mother lying in a pool of blood.
The film finishes by going back to Massimo’s childhood. Playing hide and seek with his mother, the little boy goes looking for her and can’t find her. His mother doesn’t know when to stop and the game goes on for too long. We have an inkling of how he feels.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★