Celia Rowlson-Hall’s Ma has had its subtext dragged kicking and screaming to the surface, so that every shot plays like an ultra-conscious contribution to a greater overall theme, only without the social or political severity such an approach might entail. It’s akin to the religion-focused works of Pier Paolo Pasolini if they were stripped of historical specificity and clear-headed allegory. In its place is a barrage of decidedly abstruse images and events in hard pursuit of the poeticism of Terrence Malick or maybe the neo-indie intellectualism of Shane Carruth. That either-or uncertainty defines Ma, even while sporadic sequences of the film reveal an artist with an eye for symmetrical composition and a striking sense of movement through editing.
The latter trait at times resembles a formalist dance with the titular character (Rowlson-Hall), who’s first seen wandering alone, her face covered in dirt, through an unnamed desert. Not much, if anything or anyone, is named throughout Ma, which unfolds almost dialogue-free excepting a few words from a young girl near the film’s conclusion. Accordingly, when a road tripper (Andrew Pastides) nearly hits her with his car, she simply crawls silently atop his hood, puts her face to the windshield, and rides there to a nearby motel.
Such forcefully meditative, and almost obscenely absurdist, moments are common across this tapestry of visible inner selves and bodily expressions of trauma, which quickly constructs Ma as a clear stand-in for the Virgin Mary, to the extent that it becomes redundant to even point out the similarities. Yet, as Rowlson-Hall cuts together unspecified moments that could be either reality or fantasy, Ma plays wholly sincere in its conviction that the film, with its sequences of interpretive dance, moments of still-life mise-en-scène, and multiple appeals to innocence lost, amounts to a grandiose resurrection of a collective Woman who’s never been allowed to speak.
The concept falters consistently due to Rowlson-Hall’s reluctance to place a finer point on any image or concept whatsoever. The film makes Eugène Green’s recent The Son of Joseph—itself a difficult, if more humorous and convincing, biblical redux of sorts—seem modest by comparison. Take the first night of Ma’s motel stay; after showering, a handful of men barge into her room and gather around the bed. Cut to the desk clerk (Amy Seimetz) twirling a cherry, which she delicately places onto her tongue. As soon as the men charge the bed and violently assault/rape Ma, the clerk bites into the cherry, which continues on the soundtrack as a tongue clicking in place of what would presumably be a clock ticking. In one misbegotten swoop, Rowlson-Hall reduces her protagonist to a symbol in the most literal sense, directly correlating her stolen virginity with the actual popping of a cherry. As a crass joke the choice would be irksome, but as an obvious vie for rigid, let alone doctrinal significance, it’s a film-halting offence.
Rowlson-Hall inserts more welcome bits of absurdist business in later scenes where Ma finds herself back in the desert; there, an unnamed soldier tumbles down one of the dunes over and over again, as if turning an initial fall into a series of balletic dance moves. For that matter, Ma pays clear homage in several scenes to Woman in the Dunes, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s great film that’s also about a woman who’s ensnared within a patriarchal system of tourism and bodily exchange. These moments register as sensible, truly unusual expressions of abstract pain made flesh, but they remain engulfed by a fundamentally wayward premise that at no point establishes any concrete terms for an exacting commentary or a meaningful entry point for the viewer. Ma appears to have been written, shot, and cut with the words “visceral” and “surreal” hammering every corner of Rowlson-Hall’s directorial reach.