Life on and off a movie set in 'Mia Madre' (unrated)

Love, death, cinema — they’re all there in “Mia Madre,” bumping up against one another beautifully. It’s the story of a movie director, Margherita (Margherita Buy), who, while shooting a difficult movie about labor strife, learns that her mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), may be dying. Yet even as tragedy surges, flooding scenes and tear ducts, Margherita’s featured performer, an outsize American star named Barry (John Turturro), enters laughing, bellowing, acting. The Italian director Nanni Moretti knows how to turn on the waterworks, but he also knows about that burlesque called life.

Moretti (“Dear Diary,” “We Have a Pope”) doesn’t draw a line between laughter and sorrow. Instead, he moves between registers and layers of emotion, slipping heavy moments into playful encounters and revealing the tender humor in an otherwise melancholic scene. In “Mia Madre,” he complicates the picture further by taking you on the set with Margherita while she’s shooting, and then mixing her production follies with her off-set experiences, memories and dreams. One moment, she is at a news conference; the next, she’s moving her hand across a shelf of her mother’s books only to shift abruptly back to the present.

Ada is already in the hospital when the story begins. Initially, Margherita seems more concerned about her movie than about Ada’s health — or so it seems. “Mia Madre” opens on a tense scene of a group of striking workers squaring off against the riot police outside a factory gate. At that point, it isn’t clear that this is the movie Margherita is shooting, which serves Moretti’s meaning. Here, life and art blur, and, for better or worse, Margherita lives in that blur.

Margherita may be increasingly plagued with doubts about her work — during that news conference, her voice-over gently mocks her own familiar pronouncements on “the task of cinema” — but Moretti frames her uncertainty as essential to both to creating art and to living life. It’s when Margherita is at her most arrogantly confident and dictatorial (directorial) that she’s at her absolute worse. That’s the case whether she’s yelling at her crew or, in a painful flashback, angrily ripping up her mother’s driver’s license, a gesture that is as sensible as it is cruel and humiliating.

Moretti, who has a supporting role as Margherita’s brother, plays with different performance styles throughout “Mia Madre,” with Lazzarini delivering a minimalist, naturalistic turn that pulls you in and Turturro going gloriously large and loud in a performance that seems calibrated to remind you that you’re watching a movie. Moretti’s visuals here tend to be matter-of-fact, borderline utilitarian, and so even when Margherita dreams, she remains tethered to the world. Her life, her mother and her movie are falling apart, but Margherita holds on, whether it’s that hand gently touching her mother’s books in the past or a chair, now empty, in the present.

Cast: Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Giulia Lazzarini, Nanni Moretti, Beatrice Mancini.

Director: Nanni Moretti.

Screenwriters: Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Valia Santella.

A Music Box Films release. Running time: 106 minutes. In English and Italian with English subtitles. Playing at area theaters.