In A Brighter Tomorrow, writer/director Nanni Moretti (We Have a Pope) plays Giovanni, a filmmaker who’s about to start shooting his latest feature. It’s his first film in five years, and the night before shooting begins, he recruits his film’s producer and wife Paola (Margherita Buy), as well as his daughter, Emma (Valentina Romani), to participate in a tradition he performs every time he starts a new production: eating gelato and watching Jacques Demy’s 1961 film Lola. Paola and Emma entertain Giovanni’s stubborn insistence on doing this routine together, but not for long. Paola gets sidetracked by phone calls about a different film she’s producing (her first time making a film that isn’t one of Giovanni’s, which he resentfully brings up several times), and Emma sneaks away to see her new boyfriend. “My film’s going to tank,” Giovanni says as he shuts Lola off and storms out of the room.
The ever-changing world of filmmaking, and the loss of old standards and traditions, makes up most of A Brighter Tomorrow, in which Moretti navigates his way out of the dire state cinema finds itself in today. Giovanni’s film, a period piece set in 1950s’ Italy where members of the Communist Party host a circus from Budapest right as the Soviet Union invades Hungary, piles on problems that drive him up the wall. There are ignorant cast and crew members (one actor says he thought communists only existed in Russia, a comment that makes Giovanni’s blood boil), his lead actress’s insistence on improvisation, modern-day objects like earbuds being left on set, and eventually the discovery that the film’s producer (Mathieu Amalric) is bankrupt. To top it all off, Paola reveals to Giovanni that she’s been seeing a psychoanalyst for months to muster up the strength to end their marriage.
This sounds like Moretti stacking the deck against himself, where he manufactures one situation after another in which he’s the only sane person among a simple-minded monoculture. He has enough self-awareness to target himself, since Giovanni’s hardheadedness and short temper don’t make him a hero. At one point, Giovanni visits the set of the other movie that Paola’s producing, which happens to be a violent gangster film directed by a young hotshot. Just as they’re about to film the final scene, where a character gets shot in the head, Giovanni hijacks the production to start a debate around the ethics of portraying violence. He brings in an architect and mathematician to analyze the shot construction until an exasperated film crew removes him from the set so they can finish their jobs.
Giovanni’s disruptive behaviour doesn’t put him in a good light, and this incident inspires Paola to break things off between them. And yet, as self-deprecating as Moretti may be, it doesn’t exonerate him from coming across as an old man yelling at a younger generation. Sure, Giovanni may hold a film set hostage for eight hours to question the purpose of filming a murder, but the point is that he’s the only one seeing the forest for the trees, and the one person with any sort of principles. This might have gone down better if Moretti’s jabs weren’t so broad, like when he goes to a meeting with Netflix to see if they can save his movie. It’s a short scene that amounts to saying Netflix executives are too numbers-focused to understand art, a point that’s the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.
There are some good jokes, like when Giovanni negotiates the number of minutes his film can have before there has to be a turning point in the plot. Moretti also keeps things light and brisk enough so that A Brighter Tomorrow moves along quickly. But his attempt to find a solution for his medium’s decline come up short with a sincere turn in the last act that has him use cinema to envision, as the title implies, a better future. It comes as no surprise that, for a comedian like Moretti, he’s far more comfortable taking cynical shots at what he doesn’t like than he is at asserting the “power of cinema,” which tends to come in the form of people singing and/or dancing together.
A Brighter Tomorrow premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, a mainstay for Moretti, where most of the North American media ripped it to shreds (while the film has a Canadian distributor, it doesn’t have one in the USA, and neither does his prior film Three Floors, which got a similarly negative reception at Cannes in 2021). And while this film didn’t deserve the harsh reception it got, its mixed execution makes it easy to see why people had no use for it. Even if Moretti may be right: A Brighter Tomorrow finds him less interested in reading the room and more invested in complaining loud enough about the room in the hopes it will stop changing.