“To live here, you need to be either crazy or drunk,” someone says about Guatemala in Belgian-Guatemalan director Cesar Diaz’s debut, Our Mothers (Nuestras madres), which, rather unexpectedly, won the Camera d’Or for best first feature in Cannes this year. Why this is not an understatement is demonstrated, to an extent, in this chronologically told, uninspiringly shot and flatly acted feature that tackles an important subject: the Guatemalan genocide that killed thousands of indigenous people in the Central American nation in the early 1980s.
Its selection at the Cannes Critics’ Week and its Camera d’Or win should give this by-the-numbers drama some visibility on the festival circuit and especially in Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico, where the two main actors are from (their Spanish never sounds Guatemalan, which makes everything sound strangely inauthentic). However, one would hope that Diaz would be interested in taking more risks when tackling his sophomore feature, as here he plays everything so safe it has a tendency to feel like a lecture on an important subject packaged as a TV movie.
Ernesto (Armando Espitia), in his thirties, works at a forensics foundation, which tries to locate, exhume, identify and create an inventory of the thousands of anonymous “disappeared” during the Guatemalan genocide, also known as the Mayan genocide or the Silent Holocaust. (Despite some radio reports and snippets of a trial, the wider sociopolitical context, including the involvement of the U.S. government, is mostly ignored.)
Through their unpleasant but necessary work, the people at the foundation try to offer answers and comfort to families who have been missing loved ones for decades. Ernesto’s own father, a guerrillero during the war by all accounts, also went missing during that period and one day, when talking to an indigenous lady (Aurelia Caal) who brings along some photographs, Ernesto thinks he might have a lead about his father’s possible whereabouts during the war. This makes him decide to investigate things without telling his mother, Cristina (Emma Dib), or his boss (a caricatured Julio Serrano Echeverria, who seems to be acting in a different project altogether), as Ernesto seems clearly aware that neither would approve.
The background of Diaz, which is in editing and documentary filmmaking, is most evident in Our Mothers’ midsection, in which Ernesto travels to a village and tries to follow up on the few clues that he has about his father. One standout montage sequence, which showcases the silent gaze into the camera of a succession of indigenous women who are all still dealing with the loss of those who disappeared in the 1980s, is an emotionally wrenching moment.
But it is a problem when the near-static portraits of unknown women who play practically no role in the film’s narrative — even though they undoubtedly are the reason the “madres” of the title is plural — offer the only moment of genuine emotion. Clearly Diaz wanted to make a sotto-voce exploration of a difficult and heavy topic — instead of a histrionic melodrama — but in trying to rein in the emotions, he seems to have practically scrubbed them out completely. The screenplay, also by Diaz, is so predictable that most of the characters simply seem to be going through the motions, with audiences remaining at an arm’s length even during the supposedly cathartic final moments.
This issue isn’t helped by the inexpressive countenance and impassive bearing of Espitia, whose tightly wound portrayal of the title character in Amat Escalante’s Cannes competition title Heli (2013) showcased a mesmerizing presence of which there is barely a trace left here. Dib, the biggest name in the cast, doesn’t fare much better and her character is saddled with several issues. The first problem is that Cristina, despite being a mother, isn’t really present all that much for the first half, which concentrates on Ernesto’s day-to-day at work and his subsequent discoveries. Secondly and more problematically, because we never really get any insight into her own emotional life, a late-in-the-game revelation never really has any impact and feels more like a twist lifted from countless other movies about unknown fathers in war zones. It’s a real shame that what must be a very complex rapport between mother and son is barely explored onscreen and fails to generate any heat or even interest.
Polish-born cinematographer Virginie Surdej does a more workmanlike job here than in her other two Cannes-selected features, Un Certain Regard’s Adam and The Orphanage in Directors’ Fortnight, which featured several moments of grace. The only shots that offer anything of visual interest are the overhead shots in the foundation laboratory, where people painstakingly try to put the skeletons of the victims back together again after they’ve been exhumed from anonymous mass graves. Together with Diaz and production designer Pilar Peredo, Surdej turns these moments into images that manage to express, on a metaphorical level, something about the difficulty of the task faced by the people trying to bring, with dignity and respect, some kind of closure to thousands.
Production companies: Need Productions, Perspective Films, Cine Concepcion
Cast: Armando Espitia, Emma Dib, Aurelia Caal, Julio Serrano Echeverria, Victor Moreira
Writer-director: Cesar Diaz
Producers: Geraldine Sprimont, Delphine Schmit
Director of photography: Virginie Surdej
Production designer: Pilar Peredo
Costume designer: Sofia Lantan
Editor: Damien Maestraggi
Music: Remi Boubal
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Sales: Pyramide International