Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Marco Bellocchio may be the dean of contemporary filmmakers, but few talk about him. When he makes a good movie, people shrug and say something about “Fists in the Pocket.” They don’t seem to realize that he’s released a great film in every decade since the ‘60s, or that he’s treated the topic of family more intensely than just about any filmmaker of the last 50 years. His latest, “Sweet Dreams,” could be retitled “Mothers, Italian Style.” It’s about the nimbus of dependency and longing through which Italian men perceive their mothers.
There are dead spots in the picture, and narrative bits that don’t quite fit (like a weirdly disconnected sojourn in Sarajevo), but it has the imagistic richness and thematic connectedness of the director’s best work. It’s sensual, filled out, arranged. As Bellocchio has grown older he’s become less resistant to banality. Some of his recent films, this one included, are like jingles conducted by a maestro. It often seems as though he’s using cornball story elements as a basis for his high-flown stylistic and thematic intentions. Does he elevate the material or does it hold him down? I suspect he asks himself that very question.
The hero of “Sweet Dreams,” Massimo, is a journalist who’s been out of whack since his youth, when his mother jumped out of a window one night after tucking him into bed. (Suicide is one of Bellocchio’s recurring themes.) The sound of her body crashing onto the street woke him from his sleep, and his adult life seems to linger in that blurred moment of interrupted unconsciousness. He’s a loner who finds solace in trivialities, many of them connected to his loss — soccer, pop songs, the talismanic figures of horror films. We root for him to find a connection that can stand on its own.
Though Valerio Mastandrea’s careworn handsomeness is perfect for the lead part, Bellocchio’s conception requires that he be inhibited (and that’s about all it requires). Also, he’s laboring in the shadow of Nicolo Cabras, whose youthful Massimo has a bright and confrontational neediness that’s difficult to shake. It’s often hard to link up, in an emotional sense, the two performances (this may be by design). A similar problem affects the character of Massimo’s father, even though his younger and older incarnations are played by the same actor, Guido Caprino. While in the youthful scenes Caprino is memorably stormy, by the end of the film he’s doing his best to project unrepentant masculinity through makeup that makes him look like Beethoven.
My favorite small performance is by Emmanuelle Devos, an actress who never stops seeming like a fresh discovery. Here, playing the carnal mama of Massimo’s rich friend, she effortlessly mixes the chic and the Dionysian. Does she intend to nurture Massimo, or swallow him whole?