The Son's Room comes belatedly to San Antonio, trailing clouds of critical glory, including the Palme d'Or of the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nomination in the foreign-language category. Reviewers have likened it to In the Bedroom, since both tell the story of how a sympathetic middle-class family, whose patriarch is a reticent medical man, copes with the sudden death of an almost-grownup son. Yet, unlike In the Bedroom, The Son's Room is not a revenge tragedy; the anguished father can scarcely retaliate against chance, the force that brings home to him the fragility of domestic happiness. Closer kin to the new film is Ordinary People, the 1980 feature in which a drowning accident similarly devastates a family and in which psychoanalysis is also both balm and bane to the survivors.
What bothered some American critics about Ordinary People is the misnomer of its title. The wealthy, patrician Jarretts are no ordinary people, and there seemed something a bit narcissistic in the way those privileged victims wallow in their misery. In The Son's Room, Giovanni (Moretti) is a psychiatrist and his wife, Paola (Morante), a book editor, positions that in the United States would make their household affluent. However, though they clearly live comfortably, in a port not far from Genoa, Giovanni, Paola, and their two teenage children, Irene (Trinca) and Andrea (Sanfelice), do not live sumptuously. The ornamental pot that adorns their modest apartment is chipped. This is not the hardship of Shoeshine or Bicycle Thieves, but when sorrow visits bourgeois Italy instead of Illinois, a curious American viewer is inclined to be indulgent.
During the opening credits sequence, Giovanni is jogging beside the shore. His children share his love of fitness; Giovanni's daughter is a basketball star, and his son is adept at tennis and soccer. Father and son bond over running. One Sunday morning, their plans to go out running together after breakfast are interrupted by a telephone call from one of Giovanni's patients, a suicidal man who has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. The conscientious analyst feels obligated to make a house call, and while he is off tending to his troubled patient, Andrea goes scuba diving with friends. When his son is brought back lifeless, Giovanni questions whether he might have saved Andrea if only he had been less compulsive about professional duties. If only he had run with his son instead of rushing off to help a patient, Andrea would not have died.
A brief, understated scene in which father, mother, son, and daughter accompany a pop tune on the car radio establishes that this is a happy, loving family. Irene's Latin homework becomes a joyous project for them all. As a father, Giovanni is warm, intelligent, and engaged. He is a solicitous spouse, one who cooks an appetizing lasagna and reads Raymond Carver poetry to his wife before making love. While faulting him for being too detached and calm to cope with their distress, most of Giovanni's patients nevertheless remain fiercely loyal to him. But when the shrink's own world implodes, the physician is powerless to heal himself.
Yet The Son's Room is more than a mere exercise in irony, the incongruity of a decent, humane sage's inability to manage his own sudden, baffling loss. Reading a love letter sent to Andrea, Giovanni and Paola discover that their late son's room was the site of a life they did not fully fathom. An earlier episode in the film, in which Andrea lies to his parents about a prank he pulled at school, prepares us for the point that tranquillity is founded on three illusions — self-knowledge, knowledge of those we love, and continuity. After Andrea's death, Giovanni and Paola seek out Arianna (Vigliar), the girlfriend whose existence they had never suspected. Through Arianna, the grieving parents are able to open a door into their dead son's room. The Son's Room offers a steady, unobstructed view of how flimsy is felicity.
The Son's Room
(La Stanza del figlio)
"Precariousness of happiness, exquisitely understated"
Dir. Nanni Moretti; writ. Moretti, Linda Ferri, and Heidrun Schleef; feat. Nanni Moretti, Laura Morante, Jasmine Trinca, Giuseppe Sanfelice, Silvio Orlando, Stefano Accorsi, Sofia Vigliar (R)