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Review: Madre Moodily Reflects on How the Memory of Loss Distorts Reality

Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s feature-length Madre contemplates how memories of loss linger and distort the present.

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Madre
Photo: Strand Releasing

Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s 2017 short Madre didn’t just make the most of its constraints, it embraced them. What Sorogoyen couldn’t show directly due to budgetary constraints he evoked in dialogue and mise-en-scène, while turning the inherent time limit into a narrative device: the last bar of a cellphone battery. Everything that made the film so of its type should have rendered it unfit for expansion. Counterintuitively, Sorogoyen has plunked the short, unchanged, at the start of his feature-length adaptation, which then diverges from it radically in pacing and tone without sacrificing the coherence of the feature as a whole, like an explosion followed by silence. If the short embodied panic at the prospect of loss, the feature is a more contemplative affair, about how memories of loss linger and distort the present.

The film’s first act is a torrent of dialogue. Elena (Marta Nieto) gets a call from her ex-husband’s number. It turns out to be her six-year-old son, Ivan (Álvaro Balas), abandoned on a beach somewhere in Spain or France. In a desperate bid to pinpoint his location, Elena begs her son to describe his surroundings, but what is any beach but “sand” and “water”? A stranger is approaching him, he says. Elena shouts for her son to run. He’s hiding under a tree trunk, he says, but the stranger finds him as the line goes dead. The intensity of Nieto’s performance compels us to imagine what Elena believes to be happening to her son, and like a good horror film, Madre knows that a wildly extrapolating imagination can terrorize easier than any image, no matter how ghastly. The sole detail about the stranger that Ivan relays, that he’s urinating, is more than enough to cast him as a potential threat.

The remainder of the film trades rapid-fire dialogue for quiet, painterly compositions, making it something of a spiritual successor to Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Its uneasy tone is established with the very next scene, which opens “10 years later” on a beach—footprints scattered across an expanse of sand muted under a leaden sky. In a long shot, the silhouettes of distant people, alone or in clusters, resemble flies crawling on a fogged-up windowpane, an unsettling hum filling the soundtrack.

Sorogoyen’s camera begins a methodical pan along the coastline, at last centering one of the tiny figures, who turns out to be Elena walking head down in a sand-colored dress. A swarm of figures in black approaches at a run from the opposite direction, seeming to envelope her as a wave crashes over the soundtrack, and it’s the straggler among this group, Jean (Jules Porier), wearing surfing gear as if coughed up by the ocean, who compels her to look up. Elena recognizes something of Ivan in this 16-year-old boy, sparking an epilogue that stretches out until it overwhelms what the viewer thought was the story proper.

This film’s landscape shots impose a filter of ambiguity that we can only puncture with speculation. Just as mist smears the borders between land, sea, and sky, it’s never clear to Elena whether Jean is really her long-lost son, though a certain affinity between them cannot be denied. Sorogoyen leaves it up to the viewer to decide if the urgency of their entanglement comes down to filial intimacy or sexual tension. Either way, its inappropriateness erodes her tepid relationship with a controlling farmer (Alex Brendemühl), as well as Jean’s bond with his (adoptive?) family. In a dream near the end of Madre, Elena finally “sees” the tree trunk Ivan hid under 10 years before and hears a snarling animal devouring the child, prompting her upon waking to rescue Jean, or abduct him from his family, depending on how you view it.

The feature-length Madre presents the aftermath of traumatic loss in all of its ambiguity—how what we lose revisits us in disguise, how from the outside this haunting can appear, as more than one character refers to Elena, “psycho.” By projecting her despair into the landscape, Sorogoyen shows us her grief inside out, where it cannot be judged, only witnessed.

Cast: Marta Nieto, Jules Porier, Alex Brendemühl, Álvaro Balas Director: Rodrigo Sorogoyen Screenwriter: Isabel Peña, Rodrigo Sorogoyen Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 128 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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