review for My Mother's Smile on AllMovie

My Mother's Smile (2002)
by Josh Ralske review

Amusing and enervating by turns, Marco Bellocchio's My Mother's Smile overflows with mildly interesting ideas and characters, but the end result is decidedly tepid. The film is helped immeasurably by canny casting and an exceptional lead performance. Sergio Castellitto does an excellent job of portraying Ernesto's intelligence, his love for his son Leonardo (Alberto Mondini), and his reticence to examine his unavoidable connection to his late mother. His performance is crucial because the film's best scenes involve Ernesto's efforts to deal with his son's introduction to Catholic dogma, and Ernesto's grappling with his own long-denied connection to his mother. But there's never any indication that Ernesto might compromise his principles to accept his mother's beatification, so the core conflict of the film is a little bit pallid. Bellocchio doesn't seem to trust the audience's interest in an intrinsically internal story with a flat character arc, so he throws in a mad count, who challenges Ernesto to a duel, and a beautiful spy. It's despite these contrivances that the film maintains its droll tone. Thanks to Castellitto's engaging performance and the intriguing examination of family and religion, My Mother's Smile manages to develop some emotional power.