New Yorker Films // 2002 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jonathan Weiss (Retired) // June 22nd, 2006
One person's blasphemy is another person's truth.
Though many would refute it, there is a big difference between religion and faith. Belonging to a particular religion does not necessarily mean you also have faith in it. For most, religious orientation is more a product of circumstance than choice. If your parents are of a certain religion it's almost a certainty that you will be too -- it's a choice that has been made for you, that is, I believe in what I believe because that's how I was raised to believe. On the flip side, one doesn't need to be a part of an organized religion in order to have tremendous faith whether that faith is in humanity as a whole, within the individual self, or in a greater yet less specific omnipotent being.
But what happens when what you believe in now is challenged by what you were brought up to believe? It's easy to think that we are all strong enough to stand by our present convictions -- but when confronted with unrelenting family and social pressure or with the incredible responsibility of imbuing a value system to ones children, how far would you be willing to go to remain true to yourself? This is the dilemma the protagonist of My Mother's Smile finds himself in.
On title alone, a person would be completely excused if they didn't instantly see the link to religion in this film -- after all a title like The Passion of Christ pretty much tells you everything you need to know about what you're going to see even before you insert the disc. My Mother's Smile on the other hand could really be about anything. Only upon watching the opening credits do we learn that My Mother's Smile follows the true title of the film, which is Ora di religione or "The Hour of Religion." And even though it's more like an hour and a half, all will be forgiven if it lives up to the potential of its premise.
Artist and atheist Ernesto Picciafuocco finds himself totally unprepared when he discovers that he has been kept in the dark for three years while his extended family petitioned the church to canonize his mother, killed by Ernesto's mentally disturbed brother many years before. Called upon to give his testimony, Ernesto, struggles with his own feelings about religion and social status. In the end he realizes that he only has two choices, to stay true to himself or to succumb to social and family pressure.
Right off the bat it's pretty obvious that My Mother's Smiles is not going to be your typical popcorn movie. Yet, if the subject matter interests you, or if you're in the frame of mind to watch something that could challenge your reasons for believing in what you believe then it's quite possible you're going to appreciate this film. Appreciate, not enjoy -- there is a distinction. There's not much you really can enjoy. Oh sure, you can enjoy the craft of filmmaking (and there is plenty on display here) but as far as characters go, well, it's a pretty depressing bunch.
Ernesto is a man who seems to internalize everything -- which as an artist probably makes it very hard to express himself. He's separated from his wife who also seems to have a tremendous amount of anger or pain bubbling just below the surface. The majority of his family -- including his Aunts and two brothers are self-serving pragmatists who are championing the canonization process because socially (and financially), being related to a saint certainly doesn't hurt. Ernesto's remaining brother is mentally disturbed and some years back killed their mother.
It is the details of this murder that the case for canonization hinges. The family contends that she was killed while telling her mentally disturbed son to stop shouting out blasphemies and that she forgave him in the act of stabbing her. At his trial, however, the brother says that he was on drugs and killed her while she slept. Problem is, that the brother has been put away in an institution and hasn't spoken in years. Both clergy and family think that if Ernesto joined his brothers in confronting him they might be able to get through and find out what really happened.
One would think that the quest for sainthood is enough religion for any film but it's obvious that My Mother's Smile plans on tackling the subject from different angles. The movie begins with a shot of Ernesto's wife noticing their son, Leonardo, talking to himself outside on the terrace -- at first he's muttering quietly but soon gets progressively louder and angrier. When she asks him what's the matter he explains that he learned in religion class that God is everywhere and that if God is everywhere then he can never be truly alone so he was asking God to leave him alone and give him some privacy -- pretty heady stuff coming from the mouth of an eight year old.
If anything, this movie is really about Ernesto's relationship with his son, his mother, and his god. It appears that his relationship with God was defined by his feelings towards his mother, a religious woman who he despised. She was pious, and religious, and totally incapable of showing love. In its stead, this simple woman could only muster a smug, vacant smile. His relationship with his son, on the other hand, is all about love. The film brightens significantly whenever Ernesto spends time with Leonardo. It's obvious that they adore each other. And when Leonardo has questions about religion, Ernesto answers them carefully and honestly. He never tells Leonardo what to believe he only tells him what he believes. At one point he explains to Leonardo that if he goes against his beliefs, then one day Leonardo could look back and realize that his father was a hypocrite -- and that is something that Ernesto obviously does not want to happen.
What isn't so obvious are why certain scenes or plot elements were included. For one, who in the world is Diana supposed to be? Ernesto meets her at Leonardo's school and is led to believe that she is his son's religion teacher. She is incredibly beautiful and Ernesto is instantly smitten. Later, she slips into Ernesto's studio under the pretense of showing him some of her artwork. She becomes an apparition -- tiptoeing from one room to another trying to stay out of sight. Ernesto soon finds out from Leonardo that not only is Diana Sereni not his religion teacher but his son has never even heard of her. Maybe she's part of the family's master plan to soften Ernesto up -- a thought that even crosses his mind. Or maybe she's an angel sent down to show Ernesto that there's more to life than the pettiness and politics around him. Who knows?
And then there's a miserable looking Count that Ernesto has the misfortune to overhear pontificating on the rebirth of the monarchy as the only way to de-claw the almighty church. When the Count notices Ernesto sitting on the couch he instantly takes offence to the smile on his face -- a smile Ernesto inherited from his mother. Thinking he is being mocked, the Count challenges Ernesto to an old fashioned duel. When they meet on the field of honour you're given the distinct impression that this is going to be a battle to the death but after one or two swooshes from the saber, the Count, without warning, packs up and leaves. Ernesto is left confused, angry, and with adrenaline pumping -- looking very much like he expected something fatal to happen. What did this mean? Is it meant to illustrate the superficiality of nobility -- all pomp and no circumstance or is it meant to put Ernesto in a situation where he must consider what could have happened. Throughout the film religion is explained away as an insurance policy for the afterlife. Being an atheist, Ernesto has none. Maybe this experience is also a part of some greater plot meant to influence his decision. It's hard to say.
Even though the movie takes place in the span of only two days it certainly feels like there's a lot going on in My Mother's Smile and there is -- and yet it never feels rushed. The director takes his time and isn't afraid of quiet moments where nothing seems to happen. In fact, there's something very Kubrick-like about this film, though it's hard to pinpoint what.
Maybe it's the absurdity of certain scenes that are played out as if nothing is out of the ordinary. Like the duel. Or this scene where Ernesto's Aunt calls him to her home in order to convince him to testify in his Mother's name. As he enters the house a young woman is standing in the hallway looking at a mirror. There's powder in her hair and bloodstains on her neck. There's a photo shoot taking place recreating Ernesto's mother's death at the hands of his demented brother. The Aunt will send out 8x10s to those who donate to the cause. Ernesto looks on as a model playing his demented brother repeatedly makes stabbing motions towards the throat and chest of a model playing the mother he has always detested.
Or maybe it's the director's use of music; when played against what would normally be considered a "regular" scene; scenes where people are just talking take on a completely different quality -- transforming them into something bigger than they are by adding a hidden layer of emotion, like a secret only the audience is meant to know. There's a scene near the end of the film where Leonardo's mother enters his bedroom and baptizes him as he sleeps, and it comes across as something completely chilling. Forget for a minute that by baptizing him in secret she is going against everything Ernesto believes in and wishes for his son. Forget for a minute that it's shot in shadow and looks like it would easily fit into a scene from the The Exorcist. It's the music that turns this incredibly short scene into an epic moment of betrayal.
There are times, however, when the music overpowers the dialogue, but since you're reading subtitles it shouldn't be too distracting. The picture is clear and the colour palette is somber; the sepia toned footage fitting the mood of the piece to a "T."
The extras here are also impressive in their own way. They're not particularly well shot, or smooth in a "Hollywood Behind the Scenes" kind of way, but that's what makes them so compelling. There's a serious amount of conviction behind these interviews and a real desire to explore the work. The first featurette is of Writer/Director Marco Bellocchio (Devil in the Flesh) dissecting his own film. The second is of the actor who plays Ernesto, Sergio Castellitto (The Star Maker) dissecting his craft. The third has Marco and Sergio together on a set commenting on sections of the film. And the fourth extra is a day on the set feature that truly takes you behind the scenes. There's a lot to learn in these four short and insightful vignettes.
This movie is not for everyone. It should be noted that the Roman Catholic Church has deemed this film blasphemous so it is very likely that those who are very sensitive about their Roman Catholic beliefs will take offence.
Guilty? No. Absolved? Yes. Now go in peace.
Review content copyright © 2006 Jonathan Weiss; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Italian)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interview with Marco Bellocchio
* Interview with Sergio Castellitto
* Conversation Between Bellocchio & Castellitto
* "A Day On The Set"
* Theatrical Trailer