Dear Diary (Caro Diario): Charming Film from Italy’s Nanni Moretti

Cannes Film Festival 1994 (Dramatic Competition)–I suspect most of you have not heard of Nanni Moretti, a director that in some ways could be dubbed the “Italian Woody Allen.”

Moretti is a talented writer-director with seven films under his belt, which, to the best of my knowledge, have not been released in the U.S. I saw his new movie, “Caro Diario” (“Dear Diary”) at the Cannes Film Festival, where it world-premiered, and was immediately taken by his sensibility, humor, and compassion as a performer and filmmaker; Moretti won the best director award in Cannes.

Aptly titled, “Caro Diario” is a personal work in the way that Allen’s movies (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan”) were in the 1970s, but not at present. Funny and often witty and touching, the movie is structured as an intimate travelogue. Moretti tools around Rome on his Vespa, wandering through residential neighborhoods, revisiting the islands of Lipari and Stromboli (where Rossellini shot some of his movies), and so on.

“Caro Diario” doesn’t offer a touristy view of Italy and certainly not as showy and flamboyant as Fellini’s “personal” films, such a “Fellini’s Roma.” Instead, the film benefits from Moretti’s modest, self-effacing but distinctive persona and voice. A slender, bearded man, in his early forties, Moretti addresses the camera directly–and confidentiallyto provide his honest and amusing observations.

Like Allen, Moretti makes jokes and complaints, but his humor is deeper, more personal and political than Allen’s. Pursuing his concerns, obsessions and demons, Moretti might seem self-absorbed. Yet once the whimsical jokes settle in, you realize that they also have a more serious layer–gravity and meaning that go beyond the hilarious and rude surface.

In the Rome section, Moretti comments on architecture, movies, and changes in time and space. Confessing that he loved the trashy musical “Flashdance,” he “coincidentally” runs into its star Jennifer Beals and her beau, indie Alexandre Rockwell (“In the Soup”). Hating the scary movie Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Moretti doesn’t hesitate to rush to the house of a critic who loved the film, wake him up, and force him to listen to his ridiculous effusions.

Made after Moretti’s recent bout with cancer (he’s now in remission), “Dear Diary” is naturally contemplative and self-reflexive. In the film’s last section, Moretti chronicles his travails and frustrations with the medical profession, specifically his doctors’ failure to diagnose and treat a persistent itching problem.

Every filmgoer should be able to relate to Moretti’s level of anxiety and almost Kafkaesque experiences of visiting a doctor or going to the hospital. Fresh and relevant yet always playful, “Caro Diario” features a modern Italian comedian, whose genius places him not only in the good company of Woody Allen and his elders too, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.