Victor Hugo called grief "a divine and terrible radiance which transfigures the wretched," and anyone who has ever found himself touching the sleeve of his father's favorite jacket on the day after his funeral, or gazing at the toy-strewn floor in a dead child's playroom, or surveying the carnage on a battlefield, knows exactly what Hugo meant. Grief changes human life in a way that not even love can equal.
The Italians are, of course, renowned for expressing grief -- witness their grand opera -- so it comes as no surprise that an Italian filmmaker, Nanni Moretti, has produced a minor masterpiece on the subject. What will startle some, including those benighted Americans who presume all Italians are one part tantrum and one part tomato sauce, is the spare, unsentimental tone of The Son's Room (La Stanza del Figlio). Clearly, Moretti agrees with Hugo about the transfiguring nature of grief, but the devastating changes we see here in a once-happy family that loses a sunny teenager in a scuba-diving accident are less theatrical than internalized. For the most part, this shattered family suffers in eloquent silence as it looks for a way out of the abyss.
Moretti is best known in this country for 1994's Caro Diario, a delightfully personal trio of vignettes that included a motorbike tour of Rome, comic visits to assorted Mediterranean islands, and a surprisingly funny account of the moviemaker's own grave medical crisis. In the wake of that hit, some fans started calling him "the Italian Woody Allen." In The Son's Room, which won the Palme D'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Moretti and two co-writers don't so much shift gears from comedy to tragedy as exploit the natural intimacy of the two. Even while exploring emotional turmoil, this director always finds time to chuckle at the absurdities of the human animal.
What better place to do that than a psychiatrist's office? The head of Room's stricken family is a tranquil, sometimes mischievous shrink named Giovanni (played by Moretti himself), whose carefree existence when we first meet him contrasts sharply with the problems of the people he counsels in the small, northern Italian city where they all live. Once his son dies, though, we glimpse in Giovanni's patients -- an angry pedophile, a depressed cancer victim, an obsessive-compulsive, etc. -- not only the disorders of the modern world, but the new traumas of a man who must bear his own burdens in private. On the day his beloved Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) died, Giovanni canceled their regular father-son jog to visit a patient in need. The next thing he knew, they were screwing down the lid on his lost boy's coffin.
As actor and director, Moretti handles this physician-heal-thyself element with grace and a touch of wit, but there's no mistaking how the family is beginning to disintegrate. Giovanni's wife, Paola (the beautiful Laura Morante), is haunted by the presence of her son's belongings, and the boy's energetic younger sister, Irene (Jasmine Trinca), scuttles a boyfriend and starts causing trouble in her basketball games. As waves of guilt, denial and anger torment them, the friction between husband and wife increases dangerously -- although it never reaches the pathological levels we see in the superb American film In the Bedroom, a corrosive study of grief to which The Son's Room could serve as a fitting companion piece. When Giovanni starts noticing that virtually every object in their comfortable middle-class home is either chipped or broken, we know he's hit bottom: Now he can no longer bear to continue his practice.
Moretti, who's been writing and directing films since the mid-1970s, exerts the wisdom that comes with experience in the film's lovely third act. As it happens, young Andrea had met a girl named Arianna while at camp the previous summer, and when his bereaved parents discover a tender letter she'd written to him, they try to contact her in the slim hope of knowing even more about their son. The family's eventual encounter with the sweetly bewildered Arianna (Sofia Vigliar) is both telling and transforming. Giovanni, Paola and Irene find in her not just a reflection of the boy they have lost, but the courage to move on. That The Son's Room concludes, after a long night's drive, at Italy's border with France is dramatic perfection. Arianna has one frontier to cross, Andrea's family another, and all of them have earned the right. Without unduly twisting our emotions or making any demands on our tear ducts, one of the world's most fluent filmmakers comes to terms with the "divine and terrible radiance" of grief.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.