For Italian writer-director and national cinema mainstay Nanni Moretti – a veteran whose first film came in 1976 and whose 2001 drama, ‘A Son’s Room’ won the Palme d’Or at Cannes – the familiarity of his themes and its charm might be a balm for some, but maybe it’s also bordering on boring. In “A Brighter Tomorrow,” Moretti once again stars as a version of himself – playing a character called Giovanni, his full name – as an aging and gruff film director in contemporary Italy attempting to make a new film and fails at every turn by an unreliable financier (Mathieu Almaric), an unhappy wife of forty years (Margherita Buy, another assiduous collaborator of Moretti) and a combative cast.
The film-within-the-film that Giovanni is shooting is a parable about the Italian Communist Party around 1956, and about the difficult decision of a couple of journalists from L’Unità to remain faithful to their Soviet masters or to break with them over their oppressive suppression of the Hungarian uprising. A Hungarian circus comes to town and the two journalists are divided on what to do. A story about “the end of everything,” as one producer depressingly puts it, this is a film by a veteran director who is fed up with modern cinema and the capitalist vulgarity that surrounds it.
What follows in “A Brighter Tomorrow” is likable and not entirely without merit. Giovanni is an artist and husband determined in his own way and determined to stick to a model of cinema, life and politics that follows his artistic and moral principles, for example not shooting violence for mere entertainment, as he reflects at length in “A Short Kielowski’s Film About Killing” or making films that express the communist struggle so close to his heart.
Meanwhile, Giovanni’s wife and creative partner Paola is exhausted by his stubbornness and unwillingness to listen to her; he says he needs her, but she says she’s only useful to him. Behind her back, she sees a psychoanalyst and plans to leave him, but even when she does, she is unusually friendly and helpful with John in her work. Their relationship feels like something of an afterthought, even if Moretti seems to be at least trying to address the gender dynamics in these kinds of marital situations.
Forced by circumstances to examine his approach to cinema and his intrapersonal relationships, Giovanni finally decides to alter the outcome of his film, which was originally written as a suicide.
Cinema, life, politics: Moretti’s projects share much of this common interest and a fluid, often unstructured DNA, while varying considerably in their overall impact. His 2015 film “My Mother” was an equally personal story, with the director as an actor and telling another meta-story of cinema and his whims. This inwardness can oscillate between insightful and aching navel-gazing, giving “A Brighter Tomorrow” an unstable quality. A highlight comes in the decidedly funny Netflix meeting scene that Giovanni and Paola take when their funding stalls: The executives repeat numbers to them like robots and insist that the film have at least one “fuck moment.”
Yet for every engaging character-driven moment or bit of warm humor (John angrily yelling “I’m going to call Martin Scorsese” certainly made audiences laugh at Cannes), there’s an undeserved, even galling, weirdness. The film’s cast and crew’s tendency to break into fantastical song and dance — or Moretti’s formal decisions, including abrupt last-minute flashbacks — simply don’t fit the flow of the narrative or the tone.
It is true that “A Brighter Tomorrow” takes on, at times quite convincingly, the creative and personal blinders of the protagonist, offering a critique of the arrogance of the principled but often blind male author who can stifle those around him. In a scene at the end of the film, as Giovanni hints that he needs a different conclusion to his project after deciding against a more pessimistic one, there is an enthusiastic race of ideas and cross discussions between his producers, family, the cast and the estranged wife. John blissfully looks around at their cheery attitudes, realizing, presumably, that he so rarely asks for their thoughts that they’re eager to contribute. This more effective – and optimistic – collaborative spirit drives both the new conclusion chosen for the film and, as the title suggests, one that is more attuned to the communist ideals espoused by Giovanni’s characters.
Solidarity and humanity in the face of cynicism is commendable, no doubt. But it’s hard to stay engrossed in the material at hand given Moretti’s awkward alternation between the modern-day logistics of a 1956 film-within-a-film production and the haphazard, irritating irruptions of songs (see: Giovanni in un’auto, singing Aretha Franklin histrionically). The results are frustrating and detract from the film’s overall impact, which has its heart in the right place, even if that place often feels stuck in the past.
“A Brighter Tomorrow” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.