A few weeks ago, at the end of a Nuart Theater press screening of Russian director Alexander Sokurov's Mother and Son, another viewer asked what I thought of the movie. Before I could answer, he quipped, “It was like watching paint dry.” He won't be alone in that assessment. A film about death, history, isolation and making amends, it's demanding viewing. To call it measured is to be coy. But within its painstakingly crafted world, one that's caught somewhere between a dream and a lush painting, the film is a fount of beauty, intellect and emotion.
A dying mother is tended by her adult son during the last day of her life, and at times their blood-inscribed roles are reversed. At other times, he cradles her as tenderly as a lover as her body quiets itself from seizure. They even share the same dream. Long stretches of silence serve to accent their intimacy; foreground and background blur into a single plane as the two figures curve into one another, their faces and bodies tilted and stretched, then held still by the camera. (The actors are little more than manipulated props.) Just when you're convinced you really are watching a filmed painting, there's movement or conversation. Yuri Arabov's sparse script strikes just the right balance between dialogue that's deceptively mundane and almost self-consciously lyrical. But none of it is extraneous.
Near the end of the film, the mother tells her son that on the day he was born, the weather was clear and cold. Everyone in their village said it meant the boy would be clever but heartless. “That's right,” he smiles softly. “I'm a 'head' person. Otherwise my heart would break.” Only, it's obvious from his delicate interactions with his mother, and the shadows of grief that pass over his face, that he's not ruled solely by his head. That mother-son exchange – and the falseness of the villagers' prophecy – also works, unintentionally, as a defense of the movie itself. On top of being labeled boring by its harshest detractors, Mother and Son has also been called a purely neck-up exercise. While it's true that Sokurov makes you hyperaware of scope, composition, camera movement and angles, and his considered use of sound, the knowledge registers emotionally, not academically.
Mother and Son's look is overcast, smudged, blurry; the feel of death and decay, as well as profound loneliness, throbs through its images. A dark cloud slowly spreads across the screen like a bloodstain, then just hangs there; the son silently picks his mother up and carries her down a winding path, their dull, nondescript clothing seamlessly blending them into the surrounding forest and fields; as the son stops to balance the dead weight of his mother, storm clouds gather overhead and the screen is filled with autumnal colors, the only disruption a white plume of smoke billowing out from a distant train. The home the two reside in is huge, bleak and crumbling, with its windows boarded up. An elongated throat fills the screen in tight closeup, barely recognizable as what it is, then constricts tightly in grief, issuing forth a wail of pain.
Some critics have suggested that Mother and Son is about the fall of Mother Russia, and it undoubtedly works on that level. The background we're given on the characters through their conversations is murkily sketched in, intentionally rendering them somewhat vague even as their poignant summations of life and impending separation are concise and specific. All that, added to the sum total of images, various desolate if gorgeous backdrops and the sense of approaching loss, easily serves as political commentary. But one measure of the film's brilliance is the way Sokurov renders personal drama and political wreckage one and the same.
Shortly before she dies, the mother says to her boy, “Your life was hard at times. But hard is not always bad.” To which he simply responds, “You and I. We love each other.”
MOTHER AND SON
Directed byALEXANDER SOKUROV
Written byYURI ARABOV
Produced byTHOMAS KUFUS
StarringALEXEI ANANISHNOVand GUDRUN GEYER
Released byInternational Film Circuit Inc.
At the NuartThrough February 26