In the penultimate scene of Sweet Dreams, Massimo’s girlfriend embraces him and whispers in his ear “lasciala andare” – let her go. The ‘her’ is his mother; the subject of the film Massimo’s inability to forget her.
Opening with a sepia-toned recollection of his mother coaxing him to dance the Twist, Sweet Dreams follows Massimo through a life that was then ruptured by her sudden and unexplained disappearance.
It takes us back and forth between the adult Massimo’s hesitant relationships, his bewilderment during his adolescent school days, dreamlike memories of his mother, and his career as a journalist reporting first on football and then on war-torn Sarajevo – scenes all intercut with the looming villain from Desfontaines’s 1927 film Belphégor, who becomes a symbol of Massimo’s grief. The film skips about like this without ever feeling disjointed, in part because of Francesca Calvelli’s skilful editing and in part because it so delicately conveys the faltering way we remember things, or try and then fail to find a space to bear our most difficult memories, to let them play out.
Similarly, the self-evident difficulties of centring on an emotionally disconnected protagonist are handled well by director Marco Bellocchio and Valerio Mastandrea (the adult Massimo). Because we begin looking at the world through the sweet and wide-eyed innocence of the young Massimo (Nicolò Cabras), we do not have to make enormous imaginative leaps to guess at what might lie behind the weary, hollowed-out adult.
This is Bellocchio’s 45th film, but he is little known outside his native Italy. It is hard to work out why. In Sweet Dreams, he manages to juggle all the contradictory elements of life that feed into a person’s character. He does so with a visual flare redolent of the better-known Paolo Sorrentino (there are some incredibly beautiful set-pieces in Sweet Dreams), combined with an unusual naturalism and lightness of touch.
Sweet Dreams is, despite its subject matter, not so much a ‘sad film’ as a kind of study of sadness, and the ways it echoes through and distorts a person’s life. When Massimo loses the mother who encouraged him to dance away his shyness, we worry that the retreat inside himself will be permanent. But the scene is bookended towards the end of the film, and Bellocchio allows a tentative hope to percolate through.