Septuagenarian firebrand Marco Bellocchio turns a critical eye at once sentimental and ironic to Italian men’s relationship to their mothers in Sweet Dreams, an inspired adaptation of a memoir by journalist Massimo Gramellini that opened this year's Directors' Fortnight in Cannes. Beginning with the dewy-eyed memories of a young Massimo in a halcyon 1960s, the boy dances, nestles and accompanies his mother everywhere, until her early and suspicious death sends him through the decades a man quietly emotionally and psychologically impaired—solitary, withdrawn, uncommitted. Or would he be like that anyway?
Bellocchio slyly balances the swooning syrup of a boy’s longing for his mother with a man’s hang-ups in adulthood, his romances and career. After moving into his teenage years, the film jumps to the 1990s when Massimo, by then a sportswriter, celebrated for his simple, direct and emotionless writing, encounters a Mephistophelean millionaire whose sudden death, rhyming with that of Massimo’s mother, sends the writer into broader journalism and to Sarajevo to report on the war. The specter of the man’s missing mother lingers over everything—as a boy, Massimo pledges himself to a demonic witch on television to protect him now that his mother is gone—shading how he interacts with the world around him, whether football or sniper deaths, and all of his possible romances through the years all seem to resemble his mama.
Fully embracing the melodrama of his source, Bellocchio’s sprawling, virtuosic drama takes the form of flashbacks of an older Massimo who has now surpassed his mother's age at the time of her death, a subjectivity simultaneously sentimental and subtly satiric. Sweet Dreams in fact most resembles the kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too filmmaking of Paul Verhoeven, whose films from RoboCop to Showgirls critique the kinds of movies they are thrillingly embodying but never betray their origins nor the pleasures or pitfalls of their genres. Such is Sweet Dreams, an ode to the heart-warming, undying fixation of men with their mothers, and a wry saga of the neurotic influence and obsession the figure and being of a mother has on a man.