Complete Unknown

⋆⋆ out of four stars

Rated: R for some language. In ­English and subtitled Farsi.

Theater: Lagoon.

Jenny is a chameleon. In the dazzling opening sequence of Joshua Marston’s existential mystery, she shifts between six assumed identities in a half-dozen parts of the world. Rachel Weisz reinvents herself so vividly that those magic tricks leave us gasping as much as guessing. Who she actually might be is something the film won’t answer until it is good and ready.

Unfortunately, that is none too soon. She speaks with fluid intelligence about a multitude of specialized careers; when she appears at a birthday party in Brooklyn, she calls herself Alice and holds forth on rare croaking frogs. Tom (Michael Shannon), the host and birthday boy, is surprised to see her there with his wife and friends. His conversation turns rather awkward until they step aside from the group and he asks, “Jenny, is it really you?”

The film transforms itself as Jenny does, becoming a meditation on the value of being capable of redefining your life. The secrets it reveals are not quite stunning enough to lift the story to the stratosphere. Shannon sounds and looks quite different from what we have had from him before, playing a button-down careerist with admirable restraint. But having unwrapped its surprise box halfway through, the script sputters ever so slowly to the finish.


Mia Madre

⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Rated: R for language. In subtitled Italian and English.

Theater: Lagoon.

In this movie about moviemaking, Margherita Buy plays Margherita, a harried director trying to film a drama about Roman factory workers on strike against an American moneyman about to take over their business. It’s a fair metaphor for how the beleagurerd Italian film world feels about Hollywood entrepreneurs. It’s also a reflection of the life vs. art conflicts that carom across Margherita’s memories and fantasies as she attempts to complete her troubled production.

Her mother, a beloved Latin teacher, is dying in the hospital. Her American box-office star is Barry Huggins, a B-list braggart (played entertainingly by John Turturro, often wearing an awful mustache while poorly acting in Margherita’s feature). Her daughter has failing grades in Latin class. Writer/director Nanni Moretti (“The Son’s Room”) plays a supporting role as Margherita’s brother, a self-absorbed art snob know-it-all who gives her useless advice about reviving her declining career.

Personal life is hard; professional art is harder; everyone has countless challenges and twice as many complaints. Margherita seems to be in control of her film, but sighs, “I don’t understand anything anymore.”

What makes Moretti’s film well worth a trip to the theater is his fleet footwork. Moving across its competing meta-films, he steps without stumbling between pathos that is never maudlin and comedy that is never just cheap laughs. He delivers a poignant film about loss with laughs and tears in good balance. And as he always does when playing a buffoon, Turturro is uproarious. When the prima donna Huggins flubs his lines and hollers, “I want to get out of here and go back to reality,” you feel Turturro is in exactly the right place. C. C.