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[whitespace] 'The Son's Room'
Are We There Yet? Laura Morante and Nanni Moretti (front) go for a family outing with Giuseppe Sanfelice and Jasmine Trinca.

Beyond Mourning

'The Son's Room' faces the hardest moment of all

By Richard von Busack

WHEN CRITICS get together these days, they talk of many things: Monster's Ball or Shrek, which is better? What was really happening in Mulholland Drive? Was this little Italian film that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes called The Son's Room actually better than In the Bedroom?

The first two questions are as impossible to resolve. The latter is easier: Yes, The Son's Room, a classic, does surpass the better-known Oscar-nominated film--and on the same subject, yet. Italian director/writer Nanni Moretti, who made a slight comedy called Dear Diary, has turned his attention to that most terrible and unnatural loss: the loss of a child. The citation of a Raymond Carver poem halfway through echoes Carver's sense of wary humanism, showing how people carry on through mourning that neither faith or revenge can heal.

Giovanni Sermonti (played by Moretti) is a psychiatrist in an affluent port town in Italy. He's in middle age, with some of the middle-aged discontents and pleasures. He's easily beguiled by simple things, such as the unexpected sight of a party of Hare Krishnas prancing down the street. He's just as easily vexed. Work is increasingly annoying, interrupting the pleasures of home and leisure time. He's a runner, and you can see why; it helps him through the stalemates he faces at his job. Unlike many middle-aged men, though, Giovanni is tranquilly in love with his wife, Paola (Laura Morante), who runs a money-losing art gallery.

They have two intelligent children. Irene (Jasmine Trinca) is a tomboy basketball star. Though young and healthy, she's a little drab; she dresses in earth tones and combs her hair as tightly as a widow's. Her handsome brother, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), about 17, is the one who catches the camera's eye in the aftermath of serious mischief involving suspension from school.

During the first half-hour of The Son's Room, we're lulled by the light familial comedy of the hard-working students puzzling over their Latin lessons and teasing each other over the dinner table. And we take in scenes of Giovanni at his office, dealing politely but coolly with his slightly comic longtime patients, who never really seem to get well. During a Sunday afternoon, one patient, a hypochondriac, calls for an emergency consultation. Giovanni cancels his plans and visits the sufferer, little realizing that he'll never see his son alive again.

The rest of the film follows the days of mourning. Some rituals are strangely comforting, if horrible: the sealing of the coffin with molten lead after the family gets a last look at the dead boy. Some of the rituals are supposedly comforting but infuriating. Giovanni, an atheist or agnostic, must sit through a funeral mass; the priest comes up with vague biblical parables that don't fit the situation in the least.

An outsider disrupts the family's unhappiness. Andrea had a girlfriend who apparently moved to another city and wrote him a love letter, little knowing that he was dead. The Sermontis, desperate to retrieve a scrap of what death stole from them, invite the girl to visit. What follows isn't a group hug. Arianna (Sofia Vigliar), who is a bit formal, has already begun to move on. Yet her appearance marks the moment when the family emerge from their darkness.

The film ends in an impromptu road trip, finishing a story so unforced, so unaffected and full of meaning that I'd welcome a sequel. (What happens to the Sermontis? Will Giovanni really quit psychiatry? And I suspect Irene is going to come out as a lesbian.) Moretti's use of the song "Here We Are" from Brian Eno's album Before and After Science is stunningly appropriate. Here, as in Eno's music, the pure confusion of sorrow is described with distance, elegance and hesitance.

At the very least, this beautiful film exposes the snobbery and airless perfection of In the Bedroom, a strongly acted work that was, yet, as unnaturally tidy as a TV sitcom. In The Son's Room, as in the similarly profound The Sweet Hereafter, loss can't be avenged easily; the raw fact of life's end has to be faced. In facing it, something even more difficult is faced: the moment where one has to reluctantly turn one's face back to the light of day.

The Son's Room (R; 99 min.), directed by Nanni Moretti, written by Moretti, Linda Ferri and Heidrun Schleef, photographed by Giuseppe Lanci and starring Moretti and Laura Morante, opens Friday at the Towne in San Jose.

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From the March 21-27, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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