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Nanni Moretti wants Americans to know one thing about him. “It’s not true that Flashdance changed my life,” he says solemnly.

That it did is an assertion made by a Vespa-riding Moretti—or someone who looks just like him—in 1994’s Dear Diary, the only one of his 10 features released in the United States before his new drama, The Son’s Room. An experiment in quasi-autobiography, Dear Diary came after six Moretti films that were fictional but included the 48-year-old actor-director playing a character something like himself.

“Ever since I started making short movies in Super-8 in 1973, three things came naturally to me,” he explains via an interpreter. “First, to be not only behind the camera but in front of it, not just as an actor but as a person. Another is to portray my world in its context—politically, socially, and generationally. And the third thing is to make fun of myself.”

Since 1991, Moretti has also operated an independent art house in Rome, the Nuovo Sacher, named after one of his noncinematic favorites, Sacher torte. This is where Flashdance comes in. Moretti became friendly with director Alexandre Rockwell and showed Rockwell’s 1992 film, In the Soup, at the Sacher. (“It might be the only American movie I’ve shown,” Moretti announces proudly. “Certainly one of the few.”) At the time, Rockwell was married to Flashdance star Jennifer Beals, so Moretti devised a scene in which he claims that Flashdance changed his life and then feigns delight at encountering Beals in Rome.

The films Moretti made before Dear Diary prompted many comparisons to Woody Allen, another neurotic urbanite who turns his vicissitudes into screen comedies. Asked about his early career, the director takes almost 20 minutes to summarize it, speaking in full paragraphs, taking long pauses to collect his thoughts, and occasionally challenging the translator’s choice of a word.

“I was always the main character, a character called Michele,” he says. “In movie after movie, I tried to construct an alter ego. I would always have some constant things: his passion for sweets, his obsession with shoes, some intolerance for others. Some situations were found again and again in my movies because they are part of my life. For example, the school, because both of my parents were teachers. Scenes on the telephone, because I’m a big phone-caller. My favorite means of communication is the telephone, even more than movies.”

When Moretti tired of being Michele, his response was to make his work even more subjective. In Dear Diary and its follow-up, April—never released in the United States but shown locally in the American Film Institute’s 1998 European Union Showcase—Moretti discussed his brush with cancer and the birth of his son, as well as his guilt at taking the then-unborn child to the sci-fi stinker Strange Days.

Dear Diary and April, he clarifies, “are not fiction, but I interpret myself. The third part of [Dear Diary], when I talk about my disease, is very autobiographical. I thought it would have been absurd to hide myself behind a character. Also, the first part, when I go around Rome on a motor scooter, at least in feelings, was very much autobiographical. So it just didn’t make sense to invent a character. It was better to be myself. It’s autobiographical in the general sense, but not in the details.”

The two films were part of Moretti’s quest for what he calls “unconventional ways to tell things. Sometimes, I even started filming without having a well-defined screenplay.” This, he cautions, is not the same thing as improvising. “You should never believe a director who says he improvised on the set. It just cannot be done. No one can improvise during a take.”

There are two significant distinctions between Moretti and Allen, one of them conspicuous: The former is a snappy dresser, in a painstakingly casual Italian mode. For today’s interview at Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel, Moretti wears black wool trousers, a dark-red sweater, and a complementary black-red-and-gray plaid shirt. And, of course, expensive shoes.

For the other difference, see April or 1989’s Palombella Rossa, in which Moretti is unabashedly political. The earlier film depicts the decline of the Italian Communist party as an allegorical water-polo match; April includes discussions of Albanian refugees, a putative northern Italian breakaway republic, and the triumph of the Italian left, as well as a number from a proposed musical about a Trotskyite pastry chef. Since that film was made, though, Italy has elected one of Western Europe’s most right-wing governments—and Moretti’s emphasis has shifted back to the personal.

Inspired in part both by becoming a father and having been treated for cancer, The Son’s Room is a tender drama about a family’s reaction to a teenage son’s death. “I had the intention of looking in the face of death,” the director says, “but also life and love, pain and loss.”

Moretti plays Giovanni, a psychoanalyst; Giuseppe Sanfelice is the lost boy, Andrea; and Laura Morante and Jasmine Trinca portray, respectively, Giovanni’s wife, Paola, and daughter, Irene. The action is set in the small coastal city of Ancona because, Moretti says, “I had filmed Rome from top to bottom, right to left, and I had the impression I was using it up. Also, in a smaller town, there is a community around you that can suffer with you. In a large city, no one knows anything about the others.”

Making Giovanni a shrink, the director notes, was “the first thing we talked about for this movie. The character of the psychoanalyst in movies is made very banal. In serious movies, he’s almost like an oracle. Or in comic movies, he’s often a caricature who has more problems than his patients. I wanted to tell the story of a psychoanalyst who’s credible and human. I also wanted to show the affectionate relationship that existed between a psychoanalyst and his patients.

“Also, in my previous movies, I spoke a lot, and now I wanted to find a character who speaks less and listens more,” he continues. “Perhaps because I have less stamina now. I no longer play water polo, for example.”

He and Giovanni have certain similarities, Moretti concedes, but many specifics of the character are not autobiographical: “Unfortunately, what I share are the obsessive traits. Obsessive-compulsive, ruminating.”

Suddenly, Moretti leaves the room. He objects to the word “ruminating,” the translator reveals: “He wanted to challenge me for the translation of the word. Now he’s going to check in his little pocket dictionary.”

Moretti re-enters triumphantly with the book in hand. “To brood,” he announces, elongating the “oo” sound. The translator argues that the definition isn’t quite right, but Moretti nonetheless moves on to analyze how the film’s characters grieve: “The father in a cerebral way, an obsessive way. The mother in a way more carnal. The daughter closes in inside herself, and she seems almost to want to protect her parents. And then she provokes a fight during a basketball game.

“During my previous movies,” he adds, “I was the troublemaker; I was the one starting fights. And now I have passed this characteristic to my daughter.”

The final act of The Son’s Room takes to the road. “I didn’t want to leave the characters closed inside their own rooms, inside their own pain,” Moretti says. “I wanted at the end of the movie to create a movement. And there is movement both inside the characters and also literally. So something is unlocked. Their lives will not be the same any longer. They cannot and they don’t want to forget what happened. But there is an opening toward the outside.”

In the film, Giovanni decides to buy a CD for the dead Andrea. He listens only to Italian music, so it’s on a whim that he picks a disc with music by Brian Eno, Dieter Moebius, and Hans-Joachim Roedelius. It includes “By This River,” which becomes the film’s closing theme.

Moretti is annoyed at the suggestion that ignoring non-Italian music is another trait he might share with his character. “Always in my movies I have pieces of modern hits,” he protests. “In April, I have only that; there is no original score. I am the one who chooses these songs. These are tolerated reluctantly by the musicians who write the scores. It was a song I was listening to while writing the screenplay. When I thought about a scene when I go into a record store looking for a present for my dead son, I thought that was the right record. And I also thought it was the right music to end the movie.”

Being true to his own taste is vital to Moretti. “Since I was 15 years old, I have been a very quantitatively engaged spectator,” he argues. “My ‘work’ as a spectator has influenced my work as a movie director.” Now that he runs a cinema, Moretti says, “I specialize in showing the movies I like. I think it’s a way to complement being a movie director, but I don’t have a sense of mission toward cinema. I do it not for duty but for pleasure.” —Mark Jenkins