‘The Mud Woman’ (‘La mujer de barro’): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A film of artful, challenging austerity

Catalina Saavedra (“The Maid”) stars in this stark social critique about a Chilean itinerant laborer

Sebastian Silva’s The Maid (2009) won critical and popular plaudits and multiple awards both in Latin America and beyond. Its star now returns in another, far bleaker, tale of female oppression in The Mud Woman, with Catalina Saavedra this time playing an itinerant worker who is suddenly and shockingly confronted with the return of an episode from her past. Part a general study of the condition of women and part tightly-focused social crit, despite its impeccable intentions Sergio Castro San Martin’s second feature is beautifully understated but overlong, which is largely down to the remoteness of its central character, who’s beautifully played but emotionally out of reach. Festival play seems likely.

We first see María (Saavedra) playing with her daughter Teresa (Maite Neira) in practically the film’s only scene of unforced human interaction. Leaving Teresa with a neighbor who gives her a portable TV for her journey, Maria picks up a gun and rejoins a group of itinerant workers picking grapes after ten years away from it. She is hoping to raise the money to get to Santiago to see her brother.

Maria befriends the cheerful, uncomplicated Violeta (Paola Lattus), who becomes her only companion amongst a group of women who are all younger. There’s something fearful and non-committal about Maria’s behavior from the start, and her fears are realized when the overseer of the workers turns out to be the brutish Raul (Daniel Antivilo), who may be -- though, like too much else in the film, it’s not explicitly stated -- Teresa’s father. About half way in, a scene of authentic shock and horror crashes into the stillness which will transform both Maria and the narrative, which suddenly becomes rich with incident and tension: the final scene, however, seems dramatically hard to justify.

A largely silent film punctuated with moments of decisive dialogue, the film is an attempt to restore some dignity to the forgotten lives of Chile’s migrant worker population, a collective made up mostly of women who are being exploited in several different ways, who lead non-lives: mothers who are not allowed to be with their children, whose bodies are being used either for labor or for sex. Mixing pro actresses with real migrant workers gives the lengthy scenes -- located somewhere between celebration of the women’s resistance and critique of their plight -- a gritty authenticity.

Present in every scene, Saavedra as María, her weather-beaten face permanently locked into a rictus of determination, is gripping in a tremblingly intense performance in which she has to lay herself bare and which must have been physically and emotionally exhausting. That said, there’s an embittered remoteness about Maria which makes it as hard for the viewer to engage with her as it is for the other characters: when Violeta tells her to loosen up, the viewer agrees. It’s only during her long distance conversations with Teresa that the script allows Maria to reach out to anyone else, the audience included.

When not documenting the arid landscapes of northern Chile or framing her beautifully against a variety of colored walls, Sergio Armstrong’s richly textured photography shuttles between rendering Maria’s point of view and stepping back to record the effects of life’s harshness on her skin: this is an intensely physical, artfully-made piece in which, for example, the sensuous, slippery beauty of the workers’ bodies in the shower is contrasted with the harsh aridity of the landscapes in which they’re obliged to work. To this extent, Maria herself is a blend of water and earth, and the conceit of the title is worked out very cleverly indeed.

Sebastian Vergara’s simple piano score, judiciously employed, is as understated as everything else about the film. Visually, The Mud Woman is a treat, featuring lengthy, beautifully-composed and richly-hued shots which render both the beauty and the horror of the landscapes through which Maria moves and which carefully establish her as a part of it -- as, in fact, the Mud Woman.

Production company: Storyboard Media
Cast: Catalina Saavedra, Paola Lattus, Maite Neira, Daniel Antivilo, Elsa Poblete, Angel Lattus, Daniel Alcaino,
Director, screenwriter: Sergio Castro San Martin
Producers: Gabriela Sandoval, Carlos Nunez
Director of photography: Sergio Armstrong
Production designer: Marcela Urivi
Editor: Andrea Chignoli, Sergio Castro San Martin
Composer: Sebastian Vergara, Los Charros de Lumaco
Casting director:
Sales: Media Luna New Film
No rating, 92 minutes