David G. Hughes on Marco Bellocchio’s ‘Sweet Dreams’ / ‘Fai bei sogni’ (2016)
If one musters the conviction to face a film centred on emotions as widespread as grief, depression, emotional confusion and loneliness, one would also hope that the suffering would pertain to some revelatory purpose. Not so in the case of Marco Bellocchio’s laborious new film, Sweet Dreams / Fai bei sogni, a story about the despondent life of Massimo (Valerio Mastandrea), a Turin journalist shadowed by the unexpected death of his beloved mother since a young boy.
There is an elegiac Gothic unease within this film. Bloodless faces, Catholic rituals, eerie characters and dour colours — one begins to think of the painting of Grant Wood in all its enervating deportment. Massimo finds emotional guidance in the TV figure of Belfagor, a spooky apparition, part-nun, part-Phantom of the Opera. It’s an interesting way to handle the subject of grief, but the film spirals into disjointedly assembled and disrupting time-lines from various eras of Massimo’s life. What an exercise it is to keep your temporal equilibrium; when the best way to keep track of time-line is to follow the protagonist’s hairline, something is clearly amiss (not just the hair). And while we can sympathise with Massimo’s grief (who doesn’t love their mother), this single sentiment cannot carry an entire film and the audience’s involvement for 130 minutes. This is made all the worse by the films supremely mawkish treatment of character psychology.
To what extent one is a victim of loss, and to what extent one should capitalise on it, or at least accept it, makes for interesting deliberations, but the misty-eyed, lugubrious pondering of the past, all that could have been, all that was taken away, becomes too galling. The tragedy of a mother who loved life (we know this because she dances a lot and knows music lyrics) only to have it taken away is all a bit routine at this point. Especially when the father is the contrasting authoritarian type (a Napoleon obsessive in this case). Even that awfully sentimental title starts to become more of a nuisance when its source is revealed to be gush about enteral motherly love.
Mastandrea plays the older Massimo, and his mien is spot on: he produces sad and lonesome eyes in abundance. One cannot fault his performance and it’s a testament to the film that they just about managed to dodge having the character sipping whiskey alone whilst longingly looking at photos of his dear departed mother. There is indeed a touching Freudian poeticism in his chosen occupation, as if becoming a journalist – a seeker of truth – bares relevance to the lack of closure he feels of his mother’s passing, for no one ever told him exactly how she died. By visiting Sarajevo as a war correspondent in 1992, a place where orphans were made every day, it as if he finds a therapeutic catharsis.
Freud would have a field day with Sweet Dreams—Massimo’s Oedipus Complex is bare and plain to see, and yet unexplored and uninteresting. To the rest of us, unpaid as psychoanalysts, this tribulation has little promise of redemption and even less entertainment value.