The Powerful Fall Cinema of Mother and Child

By  · Published on October 6th, 2015


My mother has been on my mind a lot lately.

She’s been on my mind even more than usual, with feelings of love, appreciation, a mild irritation (we all feel a version of it towards our moms) and most of all, fear, deeply rooted in an anxiety that time is running out and slipping away. And I have a number of films I got to experience at the fall film festival circuit to thank for this troublesome, yet welcome rush of emotions, which first manifested themselves in the form of an insatiable need to call her every single day. Next (perhaps more disturbingly) was a sudden drive to wear the same perfume as her, so I could smell like her all day. And it all started with Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, which I saw at Telluride early September.

A thriller-turned-domestic drama shrewdly written by Emma Donoghue (who also penned the novel it’s adapted from), Room will (or should) go down as one of the most powerful cinematic depictions of mother and child relationships in recent years – along with Jennifer Kent’s mercilessly candid maternal horror story The Babadook. By truthfully capturing perhaps one of the most primitive inclinations of the human condition – the oftentimes life-defining bond between mothers and their babies – Room deeply connected with the audiences at fall film festivals despite the unlikely and extenuating circumstances its story takes place in (kidnapping, rape, years of captivity, claustrophobia are among its themes and plot points). Avoiding spoilers, Room follows a pair of mother-child relationships in need of some severe mending and catching up (with characters played by Brie Larson, Joan Allen and the newcomer Jacob Tremblay), after years lost between them due to a horrific kidnapping. The widespread themes of Room somehow proved to transcend the unthinkable horrors of its immediate story and became instantly relatable to many (including myself) in visceral and universal ways, with stories of brave, sacrificing mothers and precocious children experiencing the world through a lens formed by their intrinsically and inherently intuitive caretakers. Surpassing many hotly anticipated “important on paper” social issue features, Room won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival just a few weeks ago. Like mother’s milk, the news of this small film’s glory felt right and fitting immediately, perhaps obliquely foreshadowing a quiet trend noticeable in the line up of this year’s (still ongoing) New York Film Festival.

A steady supply of material for cinema (for any art form, actually), stories of mother and child bonding and parting indeed seem to have a gentle, yet solid presence in the line up of the 53rd NYFF. You will need to look beyond its splashy and sparkly offerings to extract stories of primal attachments and detachments, but once you glance past The Walk, Bridge of Spies and Steve Jobs, it won’t be a huge stretch to claim that the 53rd NYFF is lavishly rich in themes of maternity. Perhaps the most obvious entry under this thematic banner is Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre (My Mother). With a story co-written by Moretti himself (inspired by his own experiences as a filmmaker taking care of an ill mother), Mia Madre in its core is a meditation on family ties. Following Margherita (played by Margherita Buy) – an Italian film director in the midst of the production of a film starring a needy American actor (John Turtorro) – Mia Madre, like Room, unfolds its themes slowly as its protagonist tiptoes around being a mother to her difficult teenage daughter (and let’s face it, she nurtures her film’s star too, very much like a mother would) and being a daughter to her aging mother, battling with her worsening health. As she takes off one hat and puts on another, her state of confusion and denial about her mother’s irreversible condition (the clock’s ticking) come into sharp focus when her simultaneous roles clash in reflective ways. In one particularly poignant scene where she is forced to spend the night in her mother’s apartment (after hers both literally and metaphorically floods), Margherita frantically looks for her mother’s electric bills for trivial reasons. Yet as she impatiently opens drawers and grows restless, we realize she might as well be searching for a trace of who her mother was, before she was hospitalized and lived through the day-to-day via her own competence and resources. Directly following that scene, a sense of fading away sinks in, both in her and our consciousness. She sails through her days detached and in a daze, likely needing the maternal compass that seems to be slipping through her fingers.

A scene from ‘No Home Movie’ by Chantal Akerman (Liaison Cinematographique)

The semi-fictional/semi-autobiographical Margherita certainly isn’t the only filmmaker reflecting upon her relationship to her mother. On the documentary side of the NYFF tracks, two filmmakers – journalist and first-time filmmaker Jacob Bernstein and the legendary Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman — pay tribute to their mothers through their own artistic lenses. Not having seen Akerman’s documentary just yet, I can only hypothesize upon the on-paper similarities between her No Home Movie – in which she intimately portrays her mother in the final years of her life – and Mia Madre: two female filmmakers caring for their moms in front of a rolling camera (never mind the distinction between fiction and documentary.) But having seen Jacob Bernstein’s Everything Is Copy – in which he pays tribute to his mother, the infamous writer, director and satirist Nora Ephron, with his co-director Nick Hooker – I can attest to its belonging in this intimate group of redeeming/cautioning mother-child stories. Bernstein’s documentary is titled after a motto of Ephron herself (which she picked up from her own mother). Whenever her children complained about any hiccup or hurdle in their lives, however big or small, Ephron’s advice was “Everything is Copy.” Meaning, source material for a written piece. As Bernstein runs through a set of talking-heads interviews to reveal who Ephron was as a person, her pithy philosophy becomes more than just the title of the film. Bernstein shows, in great, loving detail, that Ephron’s most intimate thoughts (even fantasies) popped up in her work frequently. Most famously, he wrestles with her mom’s break-up with her dad Carl Bernstein (one of the infamous Washington Post journalists that surfaced the Watergate scandal), as told in her book and the Mike Nichols-directed film Heartburn. While Everything Is Copy isn’t a detective story like the 2012 documentary Stories We Tell – where filmmaker Sarah Polley discovers deep secrets about her mom’s past and identity (consequently, her own) – Bernstein’s presence as a son birthed, molded and raised by Ephron- is all over the film in subtle ways, as he devotedly celebrates his mother through her final and grim days of her sickness, which she apparently kept a secret from even the closest of her friends and family.

Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, the least obvious inhabitant of the group, elevates the idea of motherhood onto two layers, drawing a parallel between one’s mother and motherland country as origins bound to fade, disappear and cause an intangible sense of emptiness. Divided into three chapters that cover three different eras (last one set in the near future of 2025), Zhangke’s film is actually about the changing times in China, starting with 1999. We follow one of the film’s main characters – an initially bubbly yet increasingly melancholic and sorrowful Tao (Zhangke’s wife Zhao Tao) – as she gets married, divorced and parted from her only son Dollar. As she fights for his attention and time, the two reunite at different points of their lives. In the film’s final chapter, where Dollar is now living in Australia away from his mother and motherland, he wears the invisible scars of his separation from his origins. Forgotten his mother and barely able to communicate to his father due to increasing language barriers, he looks like a lost, drifting soul. In the film’s second chapter (set in 2014), the scene set in a train car while Dollar and his mother Tao (taking him to his dad and his new wife, whom Dollar lives with) anchors the film emotionally. She desperately tries to fit in a lifetime worth of love and wisdom in those moments, quietly hoping her heritage and traditions would pass on to her son. But as the film’s final chapter –as well as the aforementioned titles- thematically encapsulate, time once lost and not invested in, can’t be brought back from the dead to be repurposed. What’s left is what one has to work with, as even the strongest of bonds will face the inevitable fate of fading away.

Now, go call your mother.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.