(Russia/Germany 1997 71m) DVD1/2
Aka. Mat I syn
I am seized by a suffocating nightmare
p Thomas Kufus d Alexandr Sokurov w Yuri Arabov ph Alexei Yodorov ed Leda Semyonova m Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka, Otmar Nussio, Giuseppe Verdi art Vera Zelinskaya
Alexei Ananishov (son), Gudrun Geyer (mother),
I remember discussing Sokurov’s film soon after I first saw it with a fellow film buff who asked me how bleak it was on a scale of 1 to 10. I told him, without resorting to simple numbers, that, to quote the hyperbole comparisons favoured by many critics these days, it made Robert Bresson look like Oliver Stone. He nearly choked on his Kia-Ora, and simply said “shit!” in a sort of slow drawl worthy of comparison to Clay Davis the corrupt grafter in The Wire.
I wasn’t exaggerating any. It’s also one of the simplest films of its era. It focuses on the last hours of a dying middle-aged mother in a harsh, remote land not too far from the sea. We’re not entirely sure of her malady – possibly a heart defect – we only know that it’s fatal and that her days are very much numbered. She is tended to by her adult son who lovingly and painstakingly tries to ensure that her final moments are as restful as can be, carrying her outside to see the countryside – to rest against a birch tree, to lie in the tall grass, to breathe in the sea air and hear the waves cascading against the shore. Finally, he brings her back to the barn-like dwelling where she eventually expires.
It’s a very symbolic film, amongst the most symbolic ever made, but it is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most painterly film ever made. The camera may be digital, but Sokurov uses it like an artist’s canvas. The images are often distorted horizontally or vertically as if the ratio has been set wrong on your television, but it’s quite deliberate. And the imagery throughout is simply transcendental. There’s a shot early on of fields of long grass billowing in the wind that evokes images of mother Russia through its history, both symbolic and cinematic, and through these fields we see the smoke of a train and the sound of its whistle. That is the only clue we have as the period of setting, a few decades ago, for time has basically stopped still here. The paintings evoked in the imagery are those of a century or two ago, but the most striking motif is far older than that. As the son carries his ailing mother around, or huddles up to her in bed, one becomes aware of an inversion of the traditional Christian pieta, as if life has come full circle and the suckler has become the suckled. Small wonder then that Paul Schrader said of the film that Sokurov had defined “a new form of spiritual cinema.”
From Schrader it takes us nicely to his former collaborator, Martin Scorsese, who, upon seeing the film, bemoaned why there were no American filmmakers making films like this. The obvious answer is that few Americans would want to see them, and that in America, far more than in any other nation, money talks. There’s a conversation early in proceedings where the son is about to tell of what he saw in his dream, and his mother is able to tell. A moment where the mother and son are as one, sharing the same dreams and fears. Yet their emotional and spiritual fusion is merely part of the fusion of life itself, with the pair merely figures in a breathing, living landscape. The backdrops are painterly, but though seemingly two-dimensional, the duo move though them like ghosts, spectres lost in a wilderness of the soul. We know not what the son does for living or how they make ends meet, or for how long they have been living together in such close suffocating proximity. We only know that they are waiting for death to come calling, and when he does, there’s a wonderfully symbolic moment where a butterfly perches on the back of the dying woman’s hand. By the end of this quite short film, one is left shattered by the events, and one must credit not only Sokurov but his cast of two and his DP Yodorov for their complete immersion in a vision of the fragility of life, and the infinite sense of nature. And talking of infinite, Russian Ark was not too far round the corner.