‘Journey to a Mother's Room’ (‘Viaje al Cuarto de una Madre’): Film Review

Amoros Producciones
After the bird has flown.

Celia Rico Clavellino’s intimate mother/daughter drama took two awards at the recent San Sebastian International Film Festival.

There are movies galore about young folk fleeing the family home, but few about the parents who stay behind. Journey to a Mother's Room is a carefully composed, intimate attempt to look at life inside the empty nest. It’s the kind of quiet, unshowy project in which much of the dramatic burden falls on the quality of the acting, and fine performances by Lola Duenas and Anna Castillo as the mutually needy mother/daughter tandem largely redeem Celia Rico Clavellino’s debut from its overwrought, over-careful air. That said, there is enough here to suggest that room could be found for the film at festivals beyond San Sebastian, where it made its well-received debut last month.

Estrella (Duenas) and her loner daughter Leonor (Castillo) are first seen dozing on their sofa in one of the tightly framed, claustrophobic shots that are among the film’s stylistic hallmarks. From the beginning, it’s clear that they’re close, but there’s a neediness about Estrella that borders on the unhealthy.

When Leonor’s friend Laura returns from London talking about how terrific things are there, Leonor starts to feel the narrowness of her existence ironing clothes at a dry cleaner’s run by Miguel (Pedro Casablanc). Driven by the 2008 financial crisis, a whole generation of younger Spaniards has been forced to contemplate a life abroad, and now Leonor does the same. “We could try this,” Estrella suggests in one of the subtle little maternal tyrannies she’s unaware she’s committing, and Leonor’s reply will ring true for many a victim of a clinging mother: “Why do you always speak in the plural?” she wonders.

Having learned a little English, Leonor heads for London to be, somewhat ironically, a babysitter, leaving her mother alone — until Miguel calls, asking Estrella to make up some dresses for his ballroom dancing group. Suddenly, Estrella’s life has meaning.

Mother's Room admirably strives for the kind of quiet, well-observed truthfulness that it achieves only in stretches; for example, in the little ways that Estrella tries to save money, at one point even pretending to be a different person to get a better deal from her cellphone provider. Admirably it refuses to play the sentimental or sensationalist cards, despite a concept that easily lends itself to both. The crisis scenes of Leonor’s departure and later re-arrival, for example, are left unshown, with the script more interested in the consequences rather than the event itself. There is more power in a single short scene of Estrella, unable to verbalize her frustrations, furiously and uselessly using her sleeve to remove a tabletop scratch, than there is in any histrionic goodbyes. (For the record, this film contains what has to be one of the most hilariously miserable New Year’s Eve scenes ever committed to celluloid.)

But there is also a slight plodding quality about the pic's grinding kitchen-sink mood, a problem of pacing that largely comes down to its insistence on showing the viewer how well it can do symbolism. Older Spanish homes, for example, have something called a mesa camilla, an under-table heating device that signifies warmth and comfort. Here, too neatly, this device breaks down.

The film excels as a portrait of Estrella’s loneliness: The only time she gets phone calls is when someone’s trying to sell her something. Duenas, an Almodovar, Amenabar and Martel collaborator, delivers a performance of strength and pathos as a Spanish mother of a certain generation, though even she struggles a little during those lengthy sequences alone in the house after Leonor has left. This is because context for Estrella is lacking; the missing husband, whether dead or not, is never mentioned, and we learn too little about what has caused her to behave in what is essentially a semi-traumatized manner. Castillo, a best newcomer award winner at last year’s Goyas for her performance in Iciar Bollain’s The Olive Tree, is a little too muted here.

The movie is shot through with a feel of trembling uncertainty about the world beyond the four walls of their tiny apartment: Indeed, there are no exteriors at all. In the end, Journey to a Mother’s Room is a study of post-crisis fearfulness: Estrella and Leonor are afraid for their futures, and horribly aware that in the end, they have only each other. This is the rich emotional soil in which the film is planted, and that helps the viewer forgive its failings.

Production companies: Amoros Producciones, Arcadia Motion Pictures, Noodles Productions, Pecado Films, Sisifo Films
Cast: Anna Castillo, Lola Duenas, Pedro Casablanc
Director-screenwriter: Celia Rico Clavellino
Producers: Josep Amoros, Ibon Cormenzana
Executive producers: Angel Durandez, Ignasi Estape, Mar Medir, Celia Rico Clavellino, Sandra Tapia, Jerome Vidal
Director of photography: Santiago Racaj
Art director: Celia Rico Clavellino
Costume designer: Vinyet Escobar
Editor: Fernando Franco
Casting director: Rosa Estevez
Sales: Loco Films

94 minutes