By Andrew Schenker
[Mother of Tears opens today in limited release.]
Depending on your point of view, Dario Argento's Mother of Tears is either a delirious romp, complete with wonderfully ludicrous dialogue and generous helpings of stylized gore, or an okay bit of hokum that might be enjoyable if it weren't so disgusting. If I incline to the latter view, it's principally a matter of taste, but I find it difficult to embrace a film whose effect depends so heavily on finding humor in exaggeratedly bloody spectacle (an all too common strategy among contemporary filmmakers) as well as the intentional "badness" of the film's narrative presentation. To be sure the picture shows a vivid imagination at work; would that it was placed in the service of less dubious ends.
Argento's films have always been a little hokey, but on a basic level they demanded to be taken seriously. This time an appreciation of the film seems to depend wholly on the viewer's ability to maintain an ironic distance from both the dialogue and the plotting, the former hopelessly stilted (perhaps a result of Argento's directing in English, although it's hardly the first time he's worked in his adopted tongue), the latter ridiculously overripe. After unearthing a strange urn at a Roman museum, a woman contemplates a cryptic inscription written on a piece of cloth she's uncovered. "It's in some kind of ancient language," she yells excitedly, the emphatic statement of the obvious providing (intentional?) audience amusement. But before she can reach for her Aramean dictionary, she's awakened an evil witch, the titular Mother of Tears, whose minions proceed to rip her to shreds—initiating the film's gruesome program with a prolonged disembowelment which culminates in her being choked by her own intestines—and unleash an apocalyptic wave of evil across the city. Enter Sarah Mandy (actress du jour Asia Argento), a restoration student at the museum and, she soon finds out, daughter of a "white" witch who was slain by the Mother of Tears. Granted some of her mother's powers (invisibility, for example), she's dispatched to save the world, a journey that leads her across the city and into the depths of an appropriately creaky mansion, where she stumbles upon a witch's Sabbath and engages the Mother in a final anti-climactic showdown.
Perhaps the film works best in pieces, but many of the best pieces are, if not incidental, at least somewhat peripheral to the principal action. In a recurring series of images, gangs of women done up in punky hairdos prowl the streets flanked by an anime queen decked out with gaudy gobs of yellow eyeshadow and a single black tooth. In one scene, the group heads to the airport where they strut down the hallways shooting nasty looks at all passersby, including, in a particularly droll moment, a boorish American who stops to ask for directions. Also impressive is Argento's evocation of a world given over wholly to an unchecked evil, as citizens engage in an unprecedented crime wave (precipitating "the second fall of Rome") through the power of demonic possession. It starts with a shocker as a woman matter-of-factly tosses her baby into the river and then breaks down in tears when she realizes what she's been forced to do. From there, window smashing, muggings and rapes are never far behind. Finally, there's the film's brilliant and unsettling conclusion, when after a last unpleasant conceit (a wade through a lake of feces, bringing to mind the equally crude shit-slinging in Black Book, as if Argento, like Paul Verhoeven, just couldn't help himself), Sarah and a male companion climb up through a hole and into an achingly bright and completely ersatz landscape and laugh hysterically, as if the film's artifice has finally been revealed to its characters and they've been invited to share in the audience's merriment.
But too many of Argento's set-pieces seem keyed to the demands of an extreme audience response. As in many of the Coen Brothers' films, the violence is both exceedingly graphic and highly stylized, so that even as its exaggerated presentation tends to repulse, the audience is invited to laugh at this very exaggeration. To be sure, part of the humor comes from Argento's daunting powers of invention. Few films find so many interesting ways to dispense with their victims. But, there's something fundamentally suspect about a film whose appeal is so heavily predicated on a mirthful contemplation of human innards, even within the context of Argento's obvious fantasy universe. By the time a female victim's vagina is pierced by a long spear which rips through the length of her body and exits out her forehead, the shock has largely worn off, the gory presentation reduced to banality. What once may have seemed thrillingly fresh now just seems boring. Since Argento's film seems designed above all to entertain, this has to be considered a particularly keen failure.
Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.