Sooner or later, the lead actor of the movie-within-a-movie being made in “A Brighter Tomorrow” jokes, disgruntled director Giovanni (self-referential cornball Nanni Moretti’s latest on-screen avatar) was bound to make a movie that ended with its protagonist’s suicide — the implication being, the world wouldn’t be so surprised to find the helmer putting a noose around his own neck.
Well, he does and he doesn’t go that far in a high-concept meta-comedy that presents its director’s personal disillusion with art, love and the state of the world, before becoming a “just kidding” group hug for his fans. That’s a sizable public in Moretti’s native Italy, where this welcome return-to-form has already been a commercial success. The director’s not nearly as big a deal abroad, however, to the extent that few may care whether the Cannes regular (who won the Palme d’Or for “A Son’s Room” in 2001) has got his groove back.
Fewer still will have the PhD-level familiarity with his filmography to appreciate all the in-jokes to his oeuvre, which builds to a feel-good reunion of actors from the real-life Moretti’s previous movies. The director, who is frequently described as “the Italian Woody Allen,” reengages repeat collaborator Margherita Buy as his character’s partner and producer, Paola, who’s had enough with Moretti … er, Giovanni’s self-centeredness.
Moretti clearly realizes that his detractors have the same issue (although my longstanding gripe has more to do with his baldly manipulative sense of melodrama), portraying himself as a benign egomaniac. Giovanni berates actors for bringing their own ideas to the set and forces his family to watch Jacques Demy classic “Lola” before each production. In one scene, he takes a pair of scissors to a freshly tailored costume, suggesting that the damage makes it look more “realistic.” But has anything ever felt realistic in a Nanni Moretti movie? His popularity reminds just how far Italian cinema has fallen from its early-’60s high.
Giovanni may be the main character of “A Better Tomorrow” — a conceit shamelessly lifted from Fellini’s “8 1/2” — but Moretti pokes fun at himself, privileging other characters’ points of view as well. Early on, Paola hires a therapist to help her break the news that she wants a divorce. How to call “cut” on a 40-year marriage to someone so preoccupied with his own career, she wonders? More to the point, can normal people relate to a filmmaker’s frustration that he can’t control everything in his life?
Despite the hollow flattery heaped upon him by a sycophantic French producer (Mathieu Amalric), Giovanni is struggling to pull off his latest project, a limited-interest drama about the complicity of Italy’s Communist Party in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. He loses his temper when he discovers modern artifacts clearly visible on his period set, and yet, some of the movie’s most magical scenes allow past and present to bleed together — like the young couple seen watching “La Dolce Vita.” As soon as the lights come up, the guy turns to his girlfriend and complains about “these bourgeois characters [with] their existential problems, their boredom, their hopeless sadness,” at which point, Giovanni leans in and directs them into a more satisfying romantic exchange.
Within the insular bubble that is a film, the director is God, and “A Better Tomorrow” blurs the lines between Giovanni’s life, his movies and Moretti’s own filmography. In so many playful ways, Moretti interrogates what cinema means to audiences, defending the kind of movies he feels compelled to make — movies that make people feel something. That’s the magic of cinema, as far as he’s concerned, and Moretti’s committed to it, even if it means air-dropping a musical number into the middle of his movie.
More “political” still, he takes on the soulless thinking of streamers, taking a meeting with Netflix execs in which he rejects their algorithm-driven suggestions. You want to cheer for him in that moment, although he can be plenty irritating, too, as when he intervenes on the set of a cocky young director’s climactic shoot-out to rail against the glorification of violence in movies. Punching down on the poor kid, Giovanni speed-dials his friend Martin Scorsese to back him up — a nod to the “Annie Hall” scene where Woody Allen consults Marshall McLuhan perhaps — but the call goes straight to voicemail.
“A Better Tomorrow” overflows with such ideas, which show a fresh engagement with the medium from the still-feisty director, now pushing 70 (one scene finds the spry guy scootering around his beloved Piazza Mazzini neighborhood). Do we believe even for a second that Moretti’s had it with the industry … or with life? Of course not. He’s one of those directors, so deeply adored in his home country (like French fave Claude Lelouch), who has just come up with the perfect excuse for foreign cinematheques and film societies a reason to program his greatest hits: by giving them the cheese sauce on all that’s come before.