|Margherita Buy and Antonio Albanese play a husband and wife in changed economic circumstances.|
Silvio Soldini's "Days and Clouds" snagged a bunch of Donatello Awards last spring not simply because it's a well-made, elegantly acted drama about a marriage falling apart but because it seriously captures how the Italian social epidemic of the "mammoni" can strain a marriage. Ah, yes, the mammoni: the Italian man so devoted to his mother that he can't function without her smothering. The Italian government recently went so far as to offer mammoni money to move out of the house. Boys, the economy needs you. So do your future wives.
In "Days and Clouds," which Soldini wrote with Doriana Leondeff, Francesco Piccolo, and Federica Pontremoli, the director makes this argument gently and sideways. He gives us a dual portrait of marriage: a husband forced to see himself as independent of his wife and a wife struggling not to find her husband pathetic.
With his mother dead, Michele (Antonio Albanese) has transferred his maternal attachment to his wife, Elsa (Margherita Buy, the Diane Lane of Europe). They've been together for more than 20 years. They've raised a daughter, Alice (Alba Rohrwacher), and created a beautiful home by the sea in Genoa. But for months, Michele has been keeping secret the news that he's been fired from his company. Sensing crisis, it's Elsa who springs to action, getting part-time work, while Michele, after failing to find another good job, winds up doing house repairs with some men who used to work for him.
He sinks steadily into an angry depression, constitutionally ill-equipped to handle the stress of moving into a smaller apartment and pinching pennies. He regresses. Elsa blooms, and the confident person she becomes startles Michele, who claims he's no longer attracted to her. He's not losing a wife so much as a woman who used to remind him of his mother.
Soldini, whose best known film is the unbearably sweet worldwide 2000 hit "Bread and Tulips," is in much better shape here. He offers social critique in the form of family drama. Michele's widowed father appears to be wasting away on his own. By contrast, when Alice's boyfriend brings her a pastry, the look of befuddlement on Michele's face says it all. Yes, a man can wait on his woman.
In American movies, the iconic question usually is, can men and women be friends without the sex part getting in the way? Here it's, can a husband appreciate his wife as a woman? The movie's success in Italy is partly a matter of frustration: Women need their men to grow up.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.