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. 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and suspicious death sends him through the decades a man quietly emotionally and psychologically impaired—solitary, withdrawn, uncommitted.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. Unsurprisingly, all of his possible romances through the years 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.
NOTEBOOK: In your film, you treat the mother-son relationship with both sentiment and irony...
MARCO BELLOCCHIO: Of course the love that this child feels for his mother is absolute, and there’s nothing morbid about it. It’s just the overwhelming love of a child for a mother. But then the real tragedy is the death and the disappearance of this woman and there’s no indication of anything else; and we don’t have any different clues for as long as he’s a child. He’s just a little child who is unable to stand the idea that his mother is no longer with him and tries to defend himself as much as he can in order to be able to survive. Once he becomes adult, at that point, of course he tends to stress moments and aspects that seem to contradict the feelings the he’s experiencing. He goes through a long stage where he’s absent, he’s not there. He almost forgot the mother, or suppressed the idea of her disappearance. Until he comes back into himself, when he suffers his panic attack. Then we have a series of contradictory moments, like the letter that he writes and, once it is read by the actual woman that it’s addressed to, she seems to contradict it and there’s an ironic twist, an ironic moment, at that point, when the other woman talks about the same letter. Rr when the old journalist, the old Editor in Chief, seems to criticize what he has written. He himself, he’s very sincere in his feelings, more or less acknowledged by himself. The ambiguity comes from the way people seem to contest what he’s doing and what he’s feeling.
NOTEBOOK: Your protagonist transitions from writing on sports to writing on real world events. How much does one’s family influence a person’s political development?
BELLOCCHIO: The story of Massimo Gramellini himself is also, of course, the order of the book. It starts, in professional terms, with him being a sports critic and a reviewer and, then, thanks to a series of lucky circumstances, he ends up becoming a political journalist himself. Of course, when you have to make an adaptation from a book to the big screen, there’s the problem of changing the language into a filmic language. You are obliged to stay within that time frame of two hours and we couldn’t go through his whole career in detail. So we decided to portrait the first article that he writes when the girlfriend is at this Buddhist meditation; and then the encounter with his CEO who ends up committing suicide. When he was still writing sports reviews, that man tells him, “I like the way you write about sports, because you have a dry style, very essential.” Then, through a series of steps that are dealt with through ellipsis, we get to the point of going to Sarajevo as a sort of war correspondent. It is true that Massimo Gramellini is really a self-made man coming from a family of humble origins. His father was a public official and he wanted to become a journalist. He manages to do so because he has an ability to write in a journalistic style, but that has little to do with his personal events.
NOTEBOOK: The mother-son relationship is a story told widely in Italian culture. What made you want to turn Massimo’s story into cinema?
BELLOCCHIO: I was very much impressed by this perfect blissful happiness which is suddenly interrupted—the tragedy, of course, of the death of the mother. It’s such a perfect and blissed happiness that it’s rare, indeed; it’s not in my experience as a child. I never had this kind of love from my mother. Not because she didn’t love me, but she was busy trying to raise her children and make ends meet. It’s this sort of broken myth of the mother which impressed me the most. I was also struck by the reactions that Massimo as a child had to this twist of events. First of all, by denying the death of the mother, and then by asking this sort of fantasy figure like Belphégor to help him, to protect him, and this is what attracted me. Then, of course, Massimo adult, he tries to forget, he tries to obliterate and to delete his past; but the past, in the form of the ghost, keeps on haunting him. It’s still there and demands that he comes to terms with that loss (something that he’s always tried to avoid) and that he looks at reality. Because this is our destiny. I mean, if we pretend things do not exist, they will come back to haunt us and they will be even more devastating.
This interview was filmed by Kurt Walker at the Cannes Film Festival. Watch it here