‘The Lamb’s Mother’ (‘La Madre de Cordero’): San Sebastian Review

Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
Demanding but rewarding study of an intergenerational power struggle

The silent suffering of a generation of women at a time of change comes under scutiny in this Chilean debut, which played in San Sebastian’s New Directors section

In the line of recent intense, critically-acclaimed Chilean productions such as Dog Flesh and Illiterate, The Lamb’s Mother can be filed under the category of tough but worthwhile. An intensely claustrophobic domestic drama about a middle-aged woman’s dawning realization that her life has effectively been an extension of her mother’s, this depiction of joyless lives is inevitably joyless itself, though largely redeemed by a beautiful, low key performance from Maria Olga Matte as the repressed trauma victim. As a low-key and powerful meditation on the soul-destroying influence that the church has had on women’s lives in Latin America, Lamb deserves to lie down in festivals and sidebars with a political agenda.

The life of 49 year-old Cristina (Matte) unfolds within narrow parameters. She lives with her aging, ill, passive-aggressive mother (Shenda Roman), the kind of person who calls you to tell you come home quickly only to then reveal it’s because she wants to watch a TV program with you.

A secret smoker, Cristina seemingly divides her time between attending the funerals of her mother’s friends, or sitting listening to the vicious gossip of the ones who are still alive, going to church (this is a very Catholic film, partly about how we religiously submit ourselves to our mothers) and trying to recover money owed to her by their physically massive, slightly deranged family friend Segundo (Daniel Antevilo, a massive screen presence).

After she runs into her school friend, the vibrant and cheerful Sandra (Patricia Velasco), Cristina realizes that it doesn’t all have to be this way. Small changes start to become visible in her behavior: for example, she meets Sandra one evening instead of visiting her father’s grave with her mother, she plays the slot machines and together the women sing a bizarre Chilean pop song they recall from their youth. But suddenly Sandra tries to kiss Cristina.

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The film’s main interest is in how it describes the subtle shifts in the power relations between mother and daughter, both of them realizing that Sandra will be a catalyst for great and dangerous change. Matte is excellent as the impassive Cristina, inside whom strange new emotions are brewing: she emerges with full honors from D.P Francisco Misle’s intense scrutiny of her, often in close-up.

Just as Cristina is not merely long-suffering, Velasco does not succumb to the temptation to make the mother merely terrible: if she is a suffocating tyrant, the film suggests, then it’s partly the result of a society that has taught her that this is what a mother must be. As much as anything, The Lamb’s Mother is a film about the role of the church in making women ignorant about themselves. Only Sandra appears to have escaped that logic. But Velasco's performance is just a little too upbeat and smiley to be either credible or engaging: she is too emphatically the counterpoint to Cristina.

A couple of scenes feel somewhat overstretched, with the repetitive, tedious rhythms of this unhappy domestic life spilling over into the fabric of the film itself. Despite the accuracy of its observation, Lamb is not cliche free, as when we learn that Cristina has never seen the sea, which is art house shorthand for a repressed life, and when we are watching dripping water, a convenient but yawn-inducing standby for spiritual renewal. Likewise, there is an overemphasis about several scenes, particularly those involving the grotesques gallery of the mother’s bitchy, gossiping friends. She is already quite bitchy and gossipy enough to require such underlining.

Production company: La Juguera
Cast: María Olga Matte, Shenda Roman, Patricia Velasco, Daniel Antevilo, Violeta Vidaurre, Sonia Mena, Teresa Munchmeyer
Directors: Rosario Espinosa, Enrique Farias
Screenwriter: Nicolas Gonzales, Ignacio Mardones
Producers: Natalia Isotta, Carolina Ojalvo
Director of photography: Francisco Misle
Production designer: María de los Angeles Cabezas
Costume designer: Karin Lopez
Editor: Rodrigo Andrade, Felipe Whittle
Sales: La Juguera

No rating
79 minutes