Nanni Moretti’s Caro diario (“dear diary”) is a film I love absolutely, without qualification.
It was a brave move to release this film commercially in Australia back in the mid 1990s. Many reviewers would have had no idea whatsoever that Nanni Moretti is a cult star in Europe – an actor, writer, director and producer who has a popular following as well as an intense critical cult. Almost none of the previous films as director had been screened in Australia then – I had seen only one, the strange and compelling Bianca (1983), on SBS TV. Perhaps some viewers who see Caro Diario without any of this background are disconcerted by the narcissism of a film made by Moretti about himself; and they may miss the humour of certain gags that play on his reluctant status as a popular celebrity.
Indeed, if there is a spontaneously unkind response to Caro diario from any quarters, I imagine it will be along the lines of: “Who is this guy, and why should we care what happens to him from one day to the next of his little life?” But even if you have never heard of Moretti, I think this film will convince you very quickly that this person, and this life, are of vital importance, and that this diary is a gift not to be refused.
Caro diario is based on three incidents in, or three aspects of, Moretti’s life. It is not a documentary, not a cinéma-vérité record of spontaneous events; Moretti has scripted and staged everything we see. The first part, the most glorious, is called “On My Vespa”; it’s essentially a chronicle of Moretti’s local wanderings and adventures on his motorbike: what he sees, who he meets, the places he investigates. The second part is the most overtly comedic, reminding us that Moretti is, in his own strange and unique way, known as a comedian in Italy. This part is called “Islands”, and it shows Moretti travelling around from one isle to another, in search of some elusive peace and quiet so that he can write his new screenplay. The third part, “Doctors”, is a sobering, unforgettable account of Moretti’s brush with cancer, and how infernally long it took any doctor to diagnose his condition correctly.
In each part, there are many kinds of digressions, added attractions, reveries – such as bits of TV and other films, and a lovely soundtrack music collage that includes Leonard Cohen’s song “I’m Your Man”. The film is a jam-packed mosaic, with many little gems that keep returning to you long after it’s over. Connoisseurs of pop culture and of intellectual trends will have a field day with Moretti’s treatment of film critics, anti-TV philosophers, and a host of modern obsessions. The running jokes about Italian cinema are particularly fine.
Moretti is an odd and not immediately likeable figure in the way he presents himself here. He’s full of irritations, principles, bad moods. He is a touch snobbish, a little cruel with his social satire. He seems a bit anti-social and loveless – sex, romance, even friendship appear hardly at all in Moretti’s self-portrait. But Nanni grows on you; by the end, I felt I’d received a very rare glimpse into the complexity of another human being, someone who demands true respect. Indeed, what you grow to love in this guy by the closing scene relates directly to his principles, his stand-offishness, his slightly aristocratic bearing.
Moretti refuses all easy pathos or sentiment. There is no tear-jerking, no emotional manipulation – even when we see him undergoing painful chemotherapy. All such pathos would be far too vulgar for this great artist. He shows the facts and fancies of his life directly, simply, swithout adornment. He eschews spectacle, embellishment, any unnecessary voyeuristic lingering. The simplest moments in Caro diario – such as a long shot in which the camera just trails along behind Moretti on his Vespa, with Keith Jarrett’s piano improvisation on the soundtrack, until he reaches the spot where the magisterial writer-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered – are among the most moving I have ever seen at the cinema, precisely because Moretti does not milk them as big scenes.
Few films have touched me as deeply in recent years – or ever – as Caro diario. Indeed, my intense involvement in this movie has taken on an almost psychotherapeutic force. I’ve had a recent opportunity to see several films by a French director I also deeply admire, Philippe Garrel: J'entends plus la guitare (1991) and The Birth of Love (1993). Garrel and Moretti – both men in their 40s who make films that are intimate autobiographies or self-portraits – are like mirror opposites of each other. Indeed, I even had a dream in where these two men, Garrel and Moretti, appeared to me interchanged, as Morel and Garretti. What analysis is going on in my unconscious here?
Garrel’s films, like Moretti’s, are pure, minimal, unspectacular. But they fairly drip with a certain kind of wrenching pathos. They are melancholic, sullen, wretched, soulful in a manic depressive, guilty, very masculine way. Garrel’s heroes are slumped, blocked, fugitive characters, uneasy slaves to their own desires. Garrel implies that he and his contemporaries belong to the failed generation of 1968, the lost generation of radicals who have abandoned or betrayed all their youthful ideals and bombed out by middle age.
Moretti has a similar origin, but he has turned out very differently. At the start of Caro diario, he takes himself off to an Italian film that’s a bit like The Big Chill (1983), where a bunch of middle-aged ex-radicals talk about how they’ve all sold out and become boring. “We all shouted the right slogans once upon a time”, they lament. “And look at us now!” Moretti, watching this in a theatre, is incensed. He yells back at the screen, and goes over it in his head as he rides away on his beloved vespa. “I shouted the right slogans, too”, he says. “And look at me – I’m a splendid 40 year old!”
Not that Moretti is a strappingly healthy or boundlessly physical guy. Indeed, much of the warmth that you eventually feel for him in Caro diario comes from our (and his) awareness of his physical limitations. Early on, he tells us that he is fascinated with dancing, although he cannot himself dance. His obsession was sparked by the vision of Jennifer Beals in that wonderful contemporary dance musical, Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983). Everywhere Moretti goes, looking at young, beautiful things abandoning themselves in movement, he walks among the crowd like a nerd, asking “Is she Jennifer Beals? Are you Jennifer Beals?”. This Beals fixation results in a great gag pay-off.
Anyhow, Moretti can’t dance – or, at least, he has convinced himself that this is the case. Yet we see him dancing on his Vespa, waving his arms in the air and gently swaying to and fro on the road. And – in one of the funniest and grandest scenes of the film – we see him in a bar, mimicking the loopy dance movements of Italian movie star Silvana Mangano, whom he is watching in a very surreal old movie (Alberto Lattuada’s Anna ) on the bar’s TV, which shows her (in a surreal transition) first as a nun, then as a saucy night-club performer.
Some European film critics (such as Serge Daney) talk a great deal about this theme of the body in Moretti’s work. Perhaps too much so – for Moretti is clearly concerned with a whole complex of personality and behaviour that has as much to do with mind and environment as with body. Still, Moretti’s body is important, and really rather fascinating in its quietly daggy, gently resilient states. Commentators refer to it as his neurotic body: a body that resists while exhibiting all kinds of queer, psychosomatic symptoms, that can never be fully controlled by mental intentions or by social controls.
All this is true, just as it was true for other great comics, like Buster Keaton, Eddie Cantor, Jerry Lewis, or Moretti’s national contemporaries Maurizio Nichetti and Roberto Benigni. Moretti does not have the burlesque agility or acrobatic skill of these comedians. But he does have a marvellous, everyday kind of physical grace, a way of being in the world that is truly inspiring.
Caro diario is a film that gives me an incredibly joyful feeling of what it is to be in the world, to walk or ride, to do a little dance for oneself, to experience a hundred and one daily physical irritations and delights … including, last but not least, to drink a glass of water. Let me assure you that, after seeing this film, you will never forget what this simple act of drinking a glass of water means for Moretti. (Or for Morel or Garretti, or for me.)
Watching Caro diario, I kept remembering the passionate writings of some of the early cinema theorists such as Siegfried Kracauer, who believed that the medium of film would lead to a “redemption of physical reality”, a heightened consciousness in viewers of the materiality, and the preciousness, of the real world around them. I don’t think this ever really happened en masse, historically. But here at least is one very beautiful, very special film, Caro diario, that brought me back to my daily world with a much richer sense of its palpable reality.
MORE Moretti: The Son's Room
© Adrian Martin May 1995