Last Saturday, director Nanni Moretti was clearly on top form when he hounded a former Italian premier offstage at a left-wing political rally in Rome. "Berlusconi knows how to speak to the belly of the voters," he ranted to an adoring crowd numbering several thousand, turning on Massimo D'Alema who was onstage with him at the Piazza Navona. "You – no. You've forgotten how to speak to the heads, hearts and souls of your people."
At least the politician didn't get slapped, as poor Adrian Wootton did when he interviewed Moretti onstage at London's National Film Theatre last November, mere hours after I had talked to the combustible director at the Italian Institute. He was in town to promote his latest movie The Son's Room, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and seems a strong candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
On screen, as well as off, Moretti tends to be larger than life, which is something I've always enjoyed. There's something almost heroic about his eccentricity, his determination to be Mr Awkward of the Awkward Squad. Over the years, his ubiquitous bearded face has graced several autobiographical diary movies (Dear Diary and Aprile), and a number of earlier fictions involving an alter-ego called Michele Apicella, a film-maker whose fondness for sweets and shoes counted for much of the charm in movies such as Sweet Dreams (1981) and The Red Wood Pigeon (1989).
He's been called "the Italian Woody Allen", in one of those misleading but not entirely inaccurate soundbites favoured by journalists and publicists. It's a comparison that vaguely irritates him, but then he's easily irritated as a man. There is none of Allen's (rapidly vanishing) physical comedy to him, and none of Allen's machine-like ability to produce a film a year. Nor does he date his leading ladies. But if you were to say that, yes, he casts himself in his own films, that his own life is the preoccupation of his films, and that a warm, ironic intellectual glow envelops his very best work, then, indeed, he is the Italian Woody Allen. But to clinch the comparison, I think you'd have to replace the central position of psychoanalysis in Allen's life. With Moretti, politics bears all before it.
I had made an early decision not to talk to Moretti about politics at all. His remarks on the subject are fairly well-known for those who take the time to seek them out: he's an old-fashioned communist with an implacable hostility to the current Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi (which could mean an Oscar win will be a treat to watch, since the Italian Culture minister appointed by Berlusconi has already waded in to take the credit for Italy – watch out for another slap). This strategy was entirely confirmed when an interviewer scheduled in the timeslot just before me emerged from the interview room. "Don't talk to him about politics," the stressed-out-looking hack gasped. "Once he's started, you can't get him off it."
No politics, then. Entering the room, I find Moretti massaging the shoulders of his translator Consuela, like a coach tending to an athlete. He looks up, blankly. They have a conspiratorial air.
I decide to talk to Moretti solely about psychoanalysis. In The Son's Room, he plays a psychoanalyst in an Italian seaside town, with a consulting room at the back of his house. When his young son dies, tragically, in a diving accident – it's one of those ludicrous and almost banal deaths that are rarely represented in the movies – Moretti's character proceeds to beat himself up about the time-wasting needs of neurotic patients.
Analysis does have a kind of subliminal presence in his movies. In Sweet Dreams, he plays a film director living at home with his mum, ominously writing a screenplay entitled Freud's Mother. In Bianca, he plays a psychotic murderer who makes a highly charged confession at the end of the movie. And he certainly makes a convincing shrink in The Son's Room. Had Moretti himself ever received psychoanalysis?
"No," he says with a frown, as if I'm being dumb or misunderstanding the relationship between fact and fiction. "I have never undergone therapy," he says, finally, "though over the years many friends have had the experience. Some have had to stop after a very short time because they felt it wasn't at all helpful. But I think it's fine if one is fortunate and one finds an analyst who is good, and right for oneself. In The Son's Room, many of the patients were inspired by real cases I'd read about in magazines, following which I contacted analysts to check the possibilities of changing the details in some respects."
The Hollywood notion of psychiatry seems very different, I note. He agrees. "In the US, film-makers are in fear of boring their audience, and will take the psychoanalysis scenes outside of the therapy rooms and the strictures of the four walls. The analyst will suddenly take the patient off for a walk in the park and start talking about his own life. I wanted to respect the setting, that he tries to keep his professional life confined to where he actually does it."
Moretti, I'm beginning to realise, is similarly determined to keep his private life separate from his professional one, even though, to the average outsider, the two are almost indistinguishable. For example, Aprile concerns the birth of his only child. "To make an autobiographical film is a way of revealing oneself," he says wearily. "But it's also a way of hiding oneself."
So making the films has not been at all cathartic? "Absolutely not" he says crossly, "because I have in the past joked about my neuroses doesn't mean I have come out of them. In Dear Diary, I talked about the cancer I had in reality, but I wasn't cured by talking about it on film, I was cured by chemotherapy." So he wouldn't consider having analysis or therapy? "Not now, but who knows. I liked being an analyst on film. But I'd rather be an analyst than a patient. Unfortunately, one has to undergo analysis oneself first."
Moretti has remained tiresomely elusive throughout the interview, cluttering up our conversation with long pauses and moody shrugs. By this point, he's propelled his incongruous executive chair, mobile thanks to its castors, to the other side of the room, like a bored child. His body – formerly athletic, he was a water-polo player for the Italian junior national team back in 1970 – seems to be acting autonomously, clowning around while his mind grinds away. This thin, bearded man is backing away from me as he dispenses over-serious and over-punctilious responses to easy and non-invasive questions. It seems so calculated that I can almost imagine this scene cropping up in one of his films (in an early work, the character he plays thumps an uppity interviewer). His game is not to play the game.
He informs me, as I get up to leave, that I have become fixed on the analysis question. But, in fact, it is he who has fixed me, by not really answering anything and running me out of time. "I don't believe in making a film that is a kind of self-therapy," he says. We haven't even had time to talk about politics, I lie. "Well, you know what I think about politics," he says. Indeed I do.
'The Son's Room' opens 15 FebReuse content