The Good Herbs -- Film Review

Mexico's native plants heal the soul in a moving Alzheimer's drama.

With unusual delicacy and respect and sans the slightest trace of morbidity, "The Good Herbs" describes a young woman forced to deal with her beloved mother's descent into Alzheimer's disease. Sure-footed direction by leading Mexican filmmaker Maria Novaro creates a densely woven world of women's emotions and concerns, targeting this finely acted film at female viewers in particular. Heartbreakingly real, yet at the same time forward-looking and hopeful, it's an important addition to films coming out on the disease. It won numerous awards at the Guadalajara Film Festival as well as an acting prize for the entire female cast at the Rome fest; limited art house release offshore should be forthcoming.

What makes the film special is its recurrent motif of plants and herbs native to Mexico, whose medicinal properties have long been known to healers. Using a whiff of magical realism to make plant drawings come to life on the pages of books, or intense close-ups of flowers and insects, writer/director Novaro boldly intercuts the drama with non-narrative moments of ancient wisdom.

Lala (Ofelia Medina) is in charge of the university's botanical gardens and a great plant expert. She lives alone, proudly separated from an unseen husband. She's a beacon of independence to her hippie daughter Dhalia (Ursula Pruneda), a young single mom who's raising her small son on her own. Dhalia begins to worry when mom's frequent memory lapses begin to be tinged with paranoid delusions, like the idea there is a man in the house.

As Lala's mind becomes more and more disorganized, she entrusts Dhalia with her research into herbal remedies from pre-Columbian Mexico, whose purpose is to heal not just the body, but the human soul. This isn't the kind of film that finds a magical remedy for Alzheimer's, but the idea that there is a long wisdom tradition available somehow cushions the sadness of the story, leading to a difficult surprise ending that feels right.

Feminists will appreciate Novaro's sly description of the secret life of women, from bonding over the laundry and smoking pot in the back yard, to the secret lovers who course through their lives. Dhalia's casual pick-up of a younger man (Gabino Rodriguez) in a cinema is a hoot; she finds it less amusing, however, when her mother begins hinting that she may be the daughter of a South American musician.

The cast is indeed strong and up to telling this painful story in a very human way. As Lala, Medina, who played Frida Kahlo for Paul Leduc, embodies something of a pure Mexican essence here as she pours over her books or shows her grandson around the gardens. Her strength of character is matched by her daughter's bending resilience, in Pruneda's warm and breezy performance. Also inspiring is the great Mexican actress Ana Ofelia Murguia in the role of a wise elderly neighbor who has made peace with death and still communes with her beloved granddaughter, murdered in the flower of her youth.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (competing), Nov. 2

Production company: Axolote Cine
Cast: Ursula Pruneda, Ofelia Medina, Ana Ofelia Murguia, Miriam Balderas, Cosmo Gonzalez Munoz, Gabino Rodriguez, Alberto Estrella, Rodrigo Solis, Luisa Pardo
Director: Maria Novaro
Screenwriter: Maria Novaro
Producers: Julio Barcenas, Maria Novaro
Director of photography: Gerardo Barroso
Production designer: Lorenza Manrique
Music: Santiago Chavez, Judith de Leon
Costumes: Lorenza Manrique
Editors: Maria Novaro, Sebastiano Garza
Sales agent: Latinofusion
120 minutes