A family is tested by tragedy

`The Son's Room' is wrenching, affecting

April 19, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

After a death in the family, Giovanni, the psychiatrist hero of The Son's Room, decides to give up his practice because he has lost his "objectivity." The director-cowriter, Nanni Moretti, who also stars as Giovanni, loses objectivity from the beginning. Despite some wrenching moments given to Giovanni's classy wife, Paola (Laura Morante), and his basketball-playing daughter, Irene (Jasmine Trinca), The Son's Room is basically the father's story. The result is off-balance and wobbly. It's also provocative and affecting. The picture centers on two protected spaces - the shrink's office and his home in an idyllic Northern Italian coastal town. It shows how tragedy invades both.

Giovanni is a sublime psychiatrist, exuding evenness and tolerance; his patients open up to him about everything, including pedophilia. His advice about accepting limits to responsibility and learning to relax is like a New Age version of the Serenity Prayer. He puts across a quality fast disappearing from modern tempi - patience - even when he must fake it.

Yet what happens in the shrink's room has a surprising, crackling tension. As a writer-director, Moretti turns the tug of war between Giovanni's perceptiveness and his forbearance into piercing and often jet-black comedy. Giovanni imagines showing off shelves of his own running shoes to an obsessive-compulsive patient: he wants to prove that he's as boring as she is - and persuade her to take up a sport.

The emotional and intellectual charge of the psychiatric scenes spills over into the domestic scenes rather than the other way around. Filmmaker Moretti presents an idealized vision of a civilized family. Even when something uncivilized happens, like the accusation that Giovanni's son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), and a chum have stolen a fossil from their school, Giovanni negotiates it rationally. He balances affection and concern. He even feels bad when the father of Andrea's friend leans too heavily on the boy who accuses them.

The counterpoint of Giovanni's professional life to his family life provides verve and depth. When that counterpoint fades, the film, like Giovanni, enters limbo. But the picture still develops a gut-level authority that gives traction to the family's baby steps toward renewal.

As you might have guessed from the title - if you didn't, read no further - The Son's Room turns on the sudden death of Andrea in a scuba accident. From that moment on, the movie grows ever more subjective. The camera may take in the grief of Paola and Irene, but Giovanni is the drama's center of gravity. He immediately betrays his own psychiatric counsel and seeks a culprit for the accident. First he tries to blame the scuba apparatus, then himself for making a house call - on a patient who's been diagnosed with cancer - instead of insisting that Andrea go running with him. In the movie's most devastating moments, Giovanni punctures the confidence of that patient and breaks into tears while treating another.

Momentous happenings within the family no longer engage him as much as the fossil incident, even when they're more violent, like Irene being suspended from her basketball league for fighting on the court. Giovanni's marriage slips between his fingers. When his wife tells friends about a letter that arrived for Andrea from a girlfriend they never knew he had, Giovanni, embarrassed, puts his hand on her arm to restrain her, then denies the move when she calls him on it.

So far, so trenchant. But director Moretti lacks the breadth and poise to transcend the concerns of his own central figure. This movie is shakiest when it's most histrionic. Although Morante is a vivid, gorgeous actress, the script doesn't adequately individualize Paola's grief. How many times do arthouse moviegoers need to see a grieving mother bawl as she fingers her dead boy's clothes? Moretti is more consistent when he trains his lens on himself as Giovanni, whether he's watching the sealing-up of his son's coffin or trying to feel a glimmer of sensation on a carnival thrill ride.

It's still restorative to see a movie in which a clan's hard-won qualities of generosity and openness don't just evaporate in the face of mortality. In the glorious finale, Andrea's pen-pal lover knocks on Giovanni's door, and the family happily drives her and a hitchhiker friend to the French-Italian border. This deed doesn't resolve anything, including the state of the marriage. But it surrounds Giovanni, Paola and Irene in a benign cloud of fellow feeling as they face the unknown of a future without Andrea. The Son's Room is the anti-In the Bedroom. I mean that as a compliment.

The Son's Room

Starring Nanni Moretti

Directed by Nanni Moretti

Released by Miramax

Rated R for language and some sexuality

Running time 100 minutes

Sun Score ***

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