'A Mother' ('Una Madre'): Film Review

Courtesy of Antorcha Films
Of Moms and Men.

Colombian director Diógenes Cuevas' debut drama revolves around a son who rescues his schizophrenic mother from an asylum.

A taut, claustrophobic rural tragedy that plays out amid the verdant, rolling landscape of Colombia, the thematically ambitious A Mother makes for apt viewing at a time when generations are being torn apart for reasons that they don’t always understand. (Initially slated to premiere at the Miami Film Festival in March, the film is seeking distribution.)

Reflections on the mother-son bond, on the brainwashing ways of institutions and on man’s frequent inhumanity toward women ripple through a refreshingly straightforward, effectively told and well-played debut from writer-director Diógenes Cuevas. But like its protagonists, the movie starts to lose its way somewhat during an over-staged last half-hour, when the drama succumbs a little too hastily to the direct social commentary that’s been bubbling under the surface.

At a simmering, tense family dinner, we learn that Dora (Marcela Valencia), the mother of teen Alejandro (Jose Restrepo), has been “thrown away” by the rest of the family on account of her schizophrenia. Angered by his mother’s undignified fate, Alejandro decides to visit Dora at the asylum, but on arrival he hears from the gentle-seeming but actually tyrannical Mother Socorro, who runs the institution, that it would be best for Dora’s sake that he pretend he isn’t her son.

It quickly becomes clear to Alejandro that this particular religious institution is a place of repression rather than healing; not a glimmer of compassion can be found. Dora is literally tied to her chair and, apart from the daily sedative that she must take, nothing in the way of psychology seems to have penetrated. Alejandro sets a distracting fire in the bathroom and, in the confusion, makes his escape with Dora.

Mother and son board a bus that’s stopped by police, and they must again escape, this time on foot: The film is punctuated with long shots of the couple as they trudge wordlessly across the vast, intensely green hillsides of Antioquia, beautiful to behold but indifferent to their fate.

A third escape, from a local hotel, will also be necessary, with their journey eventually bringing them, somewhat conveniently from a thematic point of view, to another motherless establishment — the rural farm of grizzled, cruelly overbearing patriarch Norman (Alberto Cardeño) and his long-suffering, pathologically submissive daughter Carmen (Cristina Zuleta). Here, the tone will become darker and Alejandro will find himself pushed beyond his limits.

Dora, superbly played by a powerfully focused Valencia, has been completely reshaped by her institutionalization, talking only of Mother Socorro and her pill. She has apparently been told that her son is dead — an idea that Alejandro, despite one tender and beautifully nuanced conversation in the middle of a field, is never quite able to disabuse her of. Cleverly, however, the little girl inside Dora is still very much alive, and it’s she who supplies what little joy there is.

The tragic heart of the film is thus that Alejandro has rescued someone who doesn’t actually recognize herself as his mother at all. This is a rich and compelling idea that, like a couple of other strands, the script doesn’t give the time and attention it deserves.

Material like this contains within it the seeds of easy sentimentality, but Cuevas’ stripped-down script and the grittily urgent, handheld camerawork, contrasting nicely with those rural long shots, help sidestep that particular danger. The expressive Restrepo plays his role as though Alejandro has a short lifetime of emotional hurt inside him waiting to break through — and that’s essentially what happens.

Alejandro’s frustrations mount as he realizes that non-humanitarian decisions taken by institutions in the name of the Catholic Church — including the oppressive patriarchy represented by every male character in the film apart from him — make it clear that it might be best for Dora if she doesn't return to her family at all. Like Steinbeck’s odd-couple classic Of Mice and Men, another tale of a doomed attempt to save an outcast, the deceptively slight A Mother becomes a powerful indictment of a society’s values, albeit one that ultimately works better as social critique than drama. 

Production companies: Antorcha Filmes, Pucara Cine
Cast: Jose Restrepo, Marcela Valencia, Alberto Cardeño, Cristina Zuleta, Eva Blanco
Screenwriter-director: Diógenes Cuevas
Producers: Jhonny Hendrix, Federico Eibuszyc, Barbara Sarasola-Day
Executive producer: Rocío Rincón
Director of photography: Roman Kasseroller
Art director: Camilo Agudelo
Costume designer: Paula Ciro
Editor: Anita Remón
Composer: Alvaro Morales
Sales: Antorcha Filmes

82 minutes