'Maternal' ('Hogar'): Film Review | Locarno 2019

Locarno Film Festival
Sister Christian, oh her time has come.

Maura Delpero's compelling fiction feature debut explores the spirited drama that arises in a Buenos Aires religious shelter.

The original Spanish title, Hogar, of writer-director Maura Delpero's fiction feature debut refers to the Buenos Aires-based religious center, a haven for forsaken women and their offspring, in which the film almost entirely takes place. The movie's English title, Maternal, alludes to the complicated emotions that arise among its primary characters — a novitiate named Sister Paola (Lidiya Liberman) and two teen mothers, Lu (Agustina Malale) and Fati (Denise Carrizo), whose struggles resonate with Paola in unexpected ways.

Given the close-quarters coupling of the spiritually pure with the implicitly damned, drama is assured. Though there's a curiously clinical air to how Delpero (a documentarian by trade) initially views her characters. The distance, in this invented context, can at times feel calculated. Yet it's only right that it takes a while for genuinely raw feelings to bubble up, given that Sister Paola, Lu and Fati are all rather firmly set in their routines and outlooks.

Paola beams that sort of sacred certainty that can be as inviting as it is unpleasant. Lu is a blasphemous rabble-rouser (for one, she uses the outstretched arms of Christ on a crucifix as her cigarette holder) who sneaks out on the regular to meet with the latest in a succession of abusive boyfriends. And Fati is a 1,000-yard-stare introvert, muted and gentle in ways that make her an easy target for mockery and ill-treatment.

Delpero and cinematographer Soledad Rodriguez's imagery is as rigid as the characters, composed in such a way (symmetrical and steady as a rock) so as to emphasize the stifling nature of the hogar. A not-necessarily divine sense of life occasionally seeps in, especially whenever the film focuses on Lu's young daughter Nina (Isabella Cilia), who proves to be the catalyst that explodes all three women's sense of self.

Delpero shows a sure hand with her performers, especially Malale, a nonprofessional quite evidently drawing on her own experiences in a real-life hogar, and the just-past-toddler-age Cilia, so natural from moment to moment that she can hardly be said to be acting. The most intriguing relationship is between Sister Paola and Nina, which treads a fine line between caring and obsessive, though the tension that results between them and Sister Paola's superiors almost always remains unspoken. This understated approach makes even mundane actions (moving a child's bed from one room to another, say) feel epochal, if not apocalyptic.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Concorso internazionale)
Production Companies: Campo Cine, dispàrte, Vivo film, Rai Cinema
Director: Maura Delpero

Screenplay: Maura Delpero
Cast: Lidiya Liberman, Denise Carrizo, Agustina Malale, Isabella Cilia, Alan Rivas, Livia Fernán, Marta Lubos, Renata Palminiello
Producers: Nicolás Avruj, Diego Lerman, Alessandro Amato, Luigi Chimienti, Marta Donzelli, Gregorio Paonessa
Executive producers: Nicolás Avruj, Alessandro Amato
Production designer: Yamila Fontán
Cinematography: Soledad Rodriguez
Costumes: Jam Monti
Sound: Vincenzo Urselli
Editing: Ilaria Fraioli, Luca Mattei
World sales: Charades (sales@charades.eu)

91 minutes