César Díaz’s Our Mothers approaches drama with a documentary impulse, unearthing the underlying pathos of transgenerational trauma and national memory from a story about restitution for state crimes. Rather than relying on explanatory flashbacks to open a window into an unrecoverable past, Díaz focuses on the present-day human and physical evidence of the Guatemalan genocide: dirt-encrusted bones, suspiciously clear tracts of land where bodies rest in mass graves, and bereaved Mayan women who, after almost 40 years, have yet to receive closure for the deaths of their loved ones.
Our Mothers opens with overhead shots of latex glove-clad hands reassembling a weathered and partial skeleton on a metal slab—a preface that wordlessly lays out the film’s core themes, as the lab worker passes a sort of measuring tape through bullet holes on opposite sides of the skull, attempting to determine the moment of death. The hands belong to Ernesto (Armando Espitia), a worker in Guatemala’s fledgling restitution project who has a personal stake in the unearthing of the genocide’s victims: His father was a leftist guerilla who was killed resisting the C.I.A.-supported death squads who decimated Guatemala’s Mayan population.
Around Ernesto, Díaz builds a complex but unpretentious interrogation of national belonging. Musing over drinks with his colleague Juan (Julio Serrano Echeverría) or speaking candidly with his mother, Cristina (Emma Dib), the young man is prone to refer to Guatemala as a “shitty country,” terminology that, perhaps intentionally, recalls the “shithole countries” comment made by Donald Trump in 2018, the year Our Mothers is set. Ernesto’s proclamations, however similar to Trump’s, originate not from a place of privileged dismissal, but one of pain. Ernesto, like the film, knows that Guatemala isn’t in any sense inevitably shitty, that things could have been different. Late in Our Mothers, a gathering of old leftists at his mother’s birthday party break out singing “The Internationale,” a rallying song that here becomes a wistful paean to the lost hopes—and lives—of a generation.
By 2018, trials of some of those responsible for the genocide are underway. Radio and TV broadcasts of the proceedings are prominent throughout the film, and though he shows little hope in the efficacy of the trials, Ernesto always makes sure to listen to the broadcasts; in this respect he differs from his mother, who’s due to testify and insists at one point that he turn off the radio while they’re in the car together. The tension between them over how much to let the past seep back into their lives rises after a woman, Nicolasa (Aurelia Caal), comes to him with information about an as-yet-uninvestigated massacre site in a remote village. In taking the case, Ernesto both exceeds his proscribed station and defies his mother’s wishes—clandestinely visiting Nicolasa’s hillside shanty town without informing his superiors, and bribing guards to let him onto private property to inspect the site of the executions.
There’s an ulterior motive for Ernesto’s leapfrogging of the official procedures for opening a forensic investigation. Nicolasa shows him a photo of the guerillas who were killed alongside the men and children of her village, and he believes he recognizes his father among them, meaning that his father’s bones might be among those resting in the ground outside her village. Díaz uses the fiction of his main character’s single-minded quest to complement and add context to the testimony of the real Mayan villagers, like Caal, who appear in the film.
But beyond providing a personalized impetus to the discovery of that testimony, Ernesto’s story also serves to illustrate the desperate tenuousness of the younger generation’s links to their own history—particularly through his reaction to the aged photograph, the ambiguity of which symbolizes the uncertainty of Ernesto’s own identity as a young Guatemalan. With that in mind, Espitia is a bit of an odd choice for the role, as the actor is visibly about a decade younger than someone born in the wake of the 1981-1983 genocide would be in 2018. The character, too, seems to combine an adult’s world-weary resignation with the petulance and passion of a younger person. But perhaps Ernesto’s incongruent youth is part of the point that Díaz is making with Our Mothers, as he’s meant to represent a generation coming of age—inasmuch as, after almost 40 years, they’re finally getting access to the truth.