John Turturro deserves four stars – but the rest of Nanni Moretti's lethargic family drama is scarcely half as good

The director Nanni Moretti is loved in his native Italy and much liked in Cannes. His film The Son’s Room won the Palm d’Or in 2001; in 2012, he was appointed President of the Jury. Yet Moretti and his movies remain little-known in Britain. Mia Madre, a lethargic family drama about the impending loss of a parent, is unlikely to broaden his appeal.

Moretti often stars in his own films and here he appears twice. First, as an actor, he plays Giovanni, the son of Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a kindly Latin scholar who is slipping with relatively minor discomfort towards death.

Moretti is also clearly present in the character of Giovanni’s sister, Margherita (Margherita Buy), a film director who is crumpling beneath the twin pressures of her mother’s decline and the film she is shooting about a workers’ dispute at a factory. The emotional kernel of the story is drawn from Moretti’s own life: his mother died during the making of his last film, 2011’s Habemus Papam [We Have a Pope].

Despite this personal connection between film-maker and film, the sincere, tender scenes played out around Ada’s hospital bed are sadly rather boring. Her character and the specific nature of her relationships with Giovanni, Margherita and her granddaughter Livia are barely revealed. When she dies, the tragedy must be taken as read.

All of this makes you doubly grateful for the arrival of John Turturro as Barry Huggins, an Italian-American actor who plays the factory-owning lead in Margherita’s film. Regardless of what the showboating Huggins is up to – whether it’s fibbing about working with Stanley Kubrick (“he had two films tailor-made for me, like a suit”), dreaming that Kevin Spacey is trying to kill him or giving an actor’s masterclass in how not to pretend you are driving a car – his scenes crackle with a wit, energy and invention that is completely lacking elsewhere.

Turturro deserves four stars – but the rest of Moretti’s saggy melodrama is scarcely half as good.