Sweet Dreams, directed by Italian director Marco Bellocchio, is a drama that never quite hits the mark, undermined by an unnecessarily fragmented, non-linear narrative.
Massimo (Valerio Mastandrea) is an accomplished journalist struggling to come to terms with the trauma of losing his mother at a young age. The movie explores various moments in his life, moving freely between his childhood and adulthood seemingly at random. Sweet Dreams lacks any discernible structure, as it plays out more like a string of loosely connected vignettes from Massimo’s life.
We see him as a child before and after his mother’s death, as an adult about to sell his parents’ old apartment, as a journalist reporting on the war in Sarajevo – one scene could be in 1993, the next in ’94, the one after that in ’92/ It’s never difficult to follow what’s going on, but it’s rarely clear why it needed to happen.
In Sarajevo, Massimo and another journalist go to a house with the dead body of the woman lying in front of one its doors. A child, presumably the woman’s, is playing on a portable video game console in another room, so Massimo’s colleague picks up his chair and positions him in front of the body so that he can get a photo. A searing indictment on exploitative media and a haunting scene for sure, but what does it have to with the rest of the movie? We never really find out how Massimo reacts to this, given the loss of his own mother, because the movie moves on rather abruptly, making that scene and many others feels unconnected and stranded.
At one point, Massimo begins to suffer from panic attacks, so he seeks the help of a doctor, Elisa (Bérénice Bejo) – yet even though the two have only had conversation over the phone, Massimo shares very intimate details of his life to her when they meet in person and is unusually forward. This is then followed up by the two being romantically involved in a later scene. The problem with the rushed characterization is compounded by the non-linear storytelling which scatters these scenes among a dozen others.
Massimo’s fascination with the character of Belfagor is also never really explained properly – why does a young Massimo deice to pray to a character from an Italian opera after the death of his mother? We see them watching Belfagor on television together, but the scene is brief and it’s the mother that has a strong reaction to seeing the character. Repeated references to Belfagor throughout the movie only make the matter more confusing.
There are parts of Sweet Dreams that are really effective and compelling. The aforementioned scene in Sarajevo is one, and another involves a young Massimo discussing the death of his mother with one of his teachers. The problem is that Sweet Dreams never feels like a cohesive story and the impact these strong individual moments have is diminished in the context of the largely forgettable whole.
The movie also doesn’t really give us a good idea of the relationship between Massimo and his mother, or even a sense of his mother as a character. We get glimpses, but Massimo’s mother feels less like a character than an abstraction, so emotionally the movie is almost clinically detached from its characters. The audience is an observer of grief, doubt, denial and pain, but it rarely if ever is made to feel them alongside the characters.
Sweet Dream’s final revelation rings hollow and not just because it’s something audiences could have figured out for themselves fairly easily. It also doesn’t really provide a sense of closure. The movie just sort of ends.
Overall, despite good performances across the board and a few memorable moments sprinkled throughout, Sweet Dreams comes across as choppy and unfocused.
Dir: Marco Bellocchio
Prd: Beppe Caschetto, Simone Gattoni
Scr: Valia Santella, Edoardo Albinati, Marco Bellocchio (based on the novel by Massimo Gramellini)
Cast: Valerio Mastandrea, Bérénice Bejo
Music: Carlo Crivelli
Country: Italy, France
Runtime: 134 min
Sweet Dreams is set for a 24th February, 2017 theatrical release.