Remember Titane? The day after Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or, a couple of summers ago in Cannes, Nanni Moretti took to Instagram and shared a selfie. The picture found him alone, staring––nay, glaring––at the camera, a halo of mercilessly grey hair framing his face, under-eye bags swollen. No filter. Moretti had traveled to Cannes for the premiere of his Three Floors, about which the less said the better, and waking up to the news that his film had lost to one where a Cadillac got a woman pregnant made him, per the selfie’s caption, “age overnight.” But the look embalmed on the ‘gram wasn’t that of a man trying to poke fun at his own mortality. It was the embittered frown of an artist who’d suddenly woken up to the fact that the world he once knew was changing, and would continue doing so at mind-blowing speed––a director who seemed to take solace in his untimeliness and furrow at the new with the same hifalutin petulance of his onscreen alter-egos.
I kept thinking about that post all through Moretti’s A Brighter Tomorrow, his umpteenth Palme d’Or contender and follow-up to Three Floors. Mostly I thought back to that face. It’s the same one Moretti wears as Giovanni, a director struggling to finish his latest passion project while wrestling with budget cuts, unscrupulous producers, and the simple, ineluctable fact that the times are a-changing, and so is the medium––those who get to make it and those who consume it. A Brighter Tomorrow isn’t just frustratingly self-referential, stashed as it is with some of Moretti’s trademarked obsessions and tropes (all of them explored with much greater success in his better, older works this one keeps harking to, from Bianca to Caro Diario). It’s a film designed as a lecture, one that keeps reminding you that the past is indeed a different, warmer country, and that clinging to it with the stubborn tenacity of Moretti’s Giovanni is possibly the only truly subversive act an artist can aspire to in this age of algorithms and IP smut.
Written by Moretti, Francesca Marciano, Federica Pontremoli, and Valia Santella, A Brighter Tomorrow follows sixty-something Giovanni as he wrestles with a new feature and a moribund marriage to Paola (Margherita Buy), a producer who’s been at his side for 30 years and 13 films. The film-within-the-film is a period drama set amidst a working-class neighborhood in 1950s Rome, where Silvio Orlando plays Ennio, the editor of Italian Communist Party’s daily l’Unità. The year is 1956 and the people of Hungary are rising against their Soviet-controlled regime. When a circus from Budapest arrives in Rome and the crew announces a strike in support of the revolution, Ennio’s left to grapple with an existential dilemma. Should the PCI he represents side with the insurgents, or with the USSR and the Soviet Army sent to crush the rebellion?
Moretti opts for the former, a utopian rewriting of history that turns A Brighter Tomorrow into a Tarantino fantasy, a kind of Once Upon a Time… in Quarticciolo. But the film’s production keeps stalling, the budget shrinking, Giovanni’s crew deserting. Even Paola takes on another project and joins a team of Korean producers who’ve decided to pump money (God knows why) into a gory crime caper shot around Rome and helmed by a young hotshot who readily genuflects before Giovanni the minute this one pops by his set. That’s because A Brighter Tomorrow posits its lead as a revered maestro; for all the timid jibes it throws at Giovanni’s cantankerous tics and quirks, the film winds up putting him on a pedestal and never knocks him down. Not only do we not get any real evidence of the man’s artistic stature (nothing beyond Giovanni’s fastidious attention to the period details of his anti-Stalin reverie and some cinephilic mumblings scattered for good measure). To pull off that coronation, A Brighter Tomorrow must render Giovanni’s competition toothless, which means the new generation of creatives he’s up against––screenwriters, producers, and directors who look about twice as young––is reduced to a pantheon of caricatures.
That’s the film’s biggest sin, and a measure of its pearl-clutching self-righteousness. No one’s spared. Early on, a screenwriter asks a dumbfounded Giovanni if communists did in fact exist in Italy; when money runs out and Paola suggests they sit down with Netflix, they meet at the streamer’s HQ speak in clichés sprinkled with the obligatory anglicisms (“we stream our products in 190 countries…” “your film is a slow-burner that never really explodes…” “what’s missing is a what-the-fuck moment”). And when Paola finally invites him to the wrap-up of the thriller she’s been working on, Giovanni stops the shoot and turns the last scene––an execution––into another opportunity to pontificate on good vs bad cinema, quoting Kieślowski (A Short Film About Killing) and pulling in luminaries to corroborate his musings the way Woody Allen had done with Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall. If life were only like this.
They’re all interactions engineered to underline the gulf between Giovanni and the loud, tawdry, careless industry he’s up against, and they’re written to help you understand not only why the director can’t (or won’t) fit in, but also why you should root for him. Yet A Brighter Tomorrow doesn’t earn that empathy. What’s missing here is a chief ingredient that Moretti’s earliest films had in spades: self-deprecating irony. His filmography is stashed with all kinds of egomaniacs––he’s played several himself––but Moretti always managed to find a way to mock their delusions of grandeur. It was that irony that turned his earliest alter-egos (like the long-haired, mustachioed Michele Apicella he played in some of his strongest films, from Ecce Bombo to Red Wood Pigeon) into indelible creations.
A Brighter Tomorrow may be soaked in nostalgia, but it’s a nostalgia with a reactionary twang. Its title, in retrospect, feels oddly ironic. This is a screed from a director unwilling to look at the future with more than just contempt, where the “tomorrow” is really just a rose-tinted fantasia of long gone past.
A Brighter Tomorrow premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.