Among the many sights on display in Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears: a psychotic screaming monkey, a gaggle of hooded, chanting occultists, an oblong, metallic jawbreaker, and some freshly disemboweled intestines employed as an impromptu noose. And that’s only the second scene.
Soon after, a smiling mother nonchalantly drops her baby off a bridge (Argento makes sure to show us the infant slamming against the concrete protusions before sinking like a dead weight beneath the Roman river), and it’s clear that no one thing is safe or sacred in this final, long-gestating installment of the director’s “Three Mothers” trilogy.
“What you see does not exist, what you cannot see is true” goes the central prophecy of Mother of Tears, perhaps a meta shout-out to those many horror films that cherish the shadow-world implicative over the balls-out blunt. But Argento’s triumph comes in fusing these two schools of cinema-thought together, cranking the gore and monster quotient up to 11, while simultaneously building up a sneaky and pointed subtext. Mater Lacrimarum herself (Moran Atias) is revealed in bits and pieces (a pierced eyelid here, an unveiled breast there—an eroticized mixture of tantalization and threat), but when bared full-on at film’s climax she comes off as a Skinemax porn queen, good for little more than a quickie fantasy behind hastily shut Venetian blinds. That’s Argento’s point—in the flesh, the monster loses her power (idle hands revealed as the devil’s work) and is easily vanquished by Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento), an unwitting descendant of the spirit-realm dwelling good witch Elisa (Daria Nicolodi).
It helps to realize that Asia is the daughter of both Argento and Nicolodi, and that Mother of Tears is, like a good many of the director’s giallos, obsessed with symbols parental and filial. “You look like your mother,” says the lesbian psychic Marta (Valeria Cavalli) to Sarah during their visit to Udo Kier’s frazzled alkie priest Father Johannes, who grounds Mother of Tears in Suspiria-by-way-of-Inferno context before saying “how d’ya do” to the wrong end of a meat cleaver. Marta herself falls victim to a forcefully thrust spear to the gonads (a phallic symbol pushed to ridiculously liberating extremes), while the Battle Royale-like leader (Jun Ichikawa) of a hilariously disruptive band of Goth chicks discovers why it’s best not to stick your head inside an occupied WC.
Both the body and the body politic are under attack in Mother of Tears: as Rome succumbs to Mater Lacrimarum’s vampiric evil (she goes so far as to lap up the violence-strewn teardrops of her victims), Sarah finds herself the witness—as a demon briefly glimpsed in the lens of a still-camera portends—of more and more unsightly horrors. A zombie set aflame illuminates a digitally augmented path to Sarah’s personal hell, a sequence capped off by an empowering moment of mother-daughter reconciliation/redemption. Sarah’s unrefined ability to vanish into thin air is shown to be more of an exhaustive curse than an unchained blessing (it is here that Argento shows the up-close-and-personal price of being sight unseen). Dreams within dreams tease Sarah, at every possible turn, with the placating comforts of death—by the time she reaches Mater Lacrimarum’s haunted manor, which she tours in a single, glorious tracking shot, she walks with subdued defiance, as if anticipating and welcoming the inevitable.
But the manor catacombs (the subconscious made horrifyingly literal) restore both her senses and her will to live. Seen face-to-face, Mater Lacrimarum might be Sarah’s two-dimensional alter-ego, the id threatening to devour the body and soul that houses it (“Who wants to eat the girl?” she croons, the double-entendre certainly not lost on her gyrating worshippers). Soon after, Sarah finds herself swimming through the literal shit, struggling to climb to the surface as the Third Mother’s mansion, along with Argento’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink narrative, comes crashing down, forever and always. Yet this critic wonders: How many people will get the sublime joke when Sarah, in the company of a Christ-speared male companion, finally ascends into a falsified otherworld of CGI/greenscreen, only to break into radiant, infectious, and transcendent hysterics?
Keith Uhlich is co-editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.