Tuesday, June 10, 2008
What You Cannot See Is Truth
You can read whatever you want into a film, but the validity of what you see can always be open to question. Sitting in the theater viewing Dario Argento’s MOTHER OF TEARS it was tempting to read a great deal into every shot, every line, looking for things that connect to his long career. There’s the wish to proclaim it as some grand artistic summation by the director and yes, certain elements do lend themselves to that theory. But while it does tie in with those other films a great deal, ultimately I got the feeling that Argento just wanted to go out to make a movie with people he knows very well and simply have a nasty good time. There are things I could say about what’s wrong with MOTHER OF TEARS—the expected dreamlike quality feels absent, a lack of appropriate payoff, the expected screwy logic—but I couldn’t help but sit there and enjoy myself thoroughly with a big smile on my face.
Just to make it clear, MOTHER OF TEARS: THE THIRD MOTHER (as it is called on screen) represents the long, long, long-awaited final chapter in the “Three Mothers” trilogy, which began with SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980). The three mothers actually a trio of sisters who are witches, each film focuses on one of them and where they reside and each film demonstrates a variety of the director’s strengths (mood, imagery, gore) and weaknesses (plot, story, which becomes beside the point anyway). SUSPIRIA is sometimes viewed as his masterpiece (it’s not my favorite, but it is the one most people seem to know), INFERNO has some extremely effective passages but seems to resist becoming a fully-fledged storyline right up to the end. So in other words, this is his PHANTOM MENACE, his CRYSTAL SKULL, or maybe most appropriately, his GODFATHER PART III. To have him return to the series and complete it after so long, after so many people had no doubt asked him when he would, it was open to question whether he would attempt to revert to the director he was all those years ago or simply just go full throttle and make what has become, in recent years, a Dario Argento film. He went with the latter but not without some blatant nods to his past. There are definitely moments sprinkled throughout which recall what has come before (not just in the first two films but from throughout his filmography) and there are actors who appear because of what their presence represents than almost any other reason. The film seems determined to not lock itself into its own history, but the past is always there. In some ways, that’s what the film is about as well.
When an ancient urn is discovered in a cemetery outside Rome it is sent by a priest, who seems to suspect what is inside, to the Museum of Ancient Art for study. Once there it is opened by the inquisitive assistant curator Giselle Mares (the beguiling Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) and art restorer Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento, of course). Giselle cuts her finger on the urn while opening it (never a good sign in one of these movies) and after a brief examination of the contents Giselle is rewarded for her curiosity when several mysterious figures (and a monkey) suddenly emerge from the shadows and brutally slaughter her. Sarah escapes, but the opening of the urn has brought the Mother of Tears, Mater Lachrimarum, “the most beautiful of the Three Mothers” back to power. As a wave of witches begin to arrive in Rome from all around the world to celebrate her return, a wave of violence and suicide begins to sweep the city. Meanwhile, Sarah begins to investigate the history of the urn with her boyfriend, museum curator Michael Pierce (Adam James) but as she finds herself being pursued by the diabolical forces Sarah begins to realize that she may be the only one with the power to stop the legendary Mother of Tears.
It’s somewhat surprising that the basic plot doesn’t make an attempt at being more similar to the other two films, such as how they were mostly set in the homes that the witches resided in. Here, that location turns out to be a key to solving the mystery and much of it is set in and around Rome with more of a straight-ahead plot than might have been expected. There are the usual hard-to-swallow beats expected from the director—my favorite is probably how Sarah at one point throws her cell phone away so the witches can’t use it to find her. Putting aside how they’re witches and may not need to trace her phone, the fact that Sarah immediately chooses to go home after doing this, seems to defeat the purpose. And yes, the movie sometimes feels like it needs a slightly bigger budget, such as the montages of chaos in Rome looking too small-scale or the long backstory told using drawings. But the honest truth for me is that the movie has enough moments which sent a charge through me of the sort that I want from an Argento film. All through the film there are moments which could have come from few other directors—Sarah Mandy’s visit to “renowned thinker” Guglielmo De Witt, for one, or an amazing long steadicam shot near the end. One particular section in a bookstore when Sarah is being chased is so absurd, yet at the same time so skillfully done, that it defies stating how good or bad it really is. Ultimately, it’s kind of mesmerizing. The violence goes perhaps farther than even Argento has ever gone—I’m used to this stuff and even I had to shield my eyes a few times. But even where the film seems to step over that line in one scene (those who have seen it will know what I’m talking about) it’s hard to ignore how in that moment the film provides us with one of its most effective grace moments as we get the most chilling impression of the title character the film ever gives us.
Somehow fitting for a movie with the word ‘Mother’ in the title, it is the women who seem continually at the forefront. For all the talk bandied about of how Argento’s films are misogynist I get the impression possibly more than ever before that it’s the women in the film where his main interest lies. The male characters feel little more than functional in the narrative and frankly, I get the feeling that he is more interested in the briefly-seen woman on a bridge who does something horrible to her baby, in an already notorious scene, than he does in a few of the men who actually have substantial roles. As good as Asia Argento is as Sarah Mandy, everything we know about her means that it’s a bit of a reach to buy her as an art restorer who is unaware of her special powers—it’s not too far off from trying to buy Arnold Schwarzenegger as a mere construction worker in TOTAL RECALL. Even so, I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role and while it’s tempting to say that she is allowed few of her expected quirks while on the run through much of the film, but we do get her barking “WHAT??!!” at a curious bystander at one point. As the much-discussed Mater Lachrymarum, Moran Atias certainly look impressive and she does have that one moment I mentioned, but whenever she speaks it all goes out the window. It’s not a voice of power, it’s the voice of a supermodel who wants to know where her latte is. Much more impressive is Jun Ichikawa as another witch whose very screen presence alone is responsible for a few of the most effective moments. Especially interesting is the actress Valeria Cavalli as psychic Marta Colussi who brings an unusual empathic sensuality to her role. Even when given a fairly gratuitous lesbian scene to play, it is at least refreshing to have an actress of that age being presented as a sexual creature. (As for what eventually happens to her, well…) Udo Kier, the one male who really gets to make an impression, comes off as a lunatic in his role as a priest but it’s hard not to get a kick out it considering that he, as another character, provided much of the exposition in SUSPIRIA. Here does a little of the same, with a particularly nice moment when he mentions the name of Suzy Banyon. Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni’s association with Argento goes all the way back to the eighties so it feels important that she is once again being brutally killed off here, and it is an amazing death scene, even if it is a small role. But for me the film which has a large enough role for Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni has yet to be made.
The film is a work of madness and there’s a degree to which it’s hard to take much of any of it seriously. But for me there’s something there, an embracing of that madness for now and all time which is most obvious in the final shot, a closer which recalls the end of SUSPIRIA and seems just right considering everything we’ve just seen. Argento is who he is and maybe what that ending tells us is that we’re just going to have to learn to live with it. In SUSPIRIA the key line was “Magic is all around us.” Here, after the heroine insists at the beginning, “We’re supposed to believe in what we see,” we are later told, “What you see does not exist. What you cannot see is truth.” The lead character goes from believing in what she knows to accepting what she is. Somewhere in that truth and madness is what MOTHER OF TEARS is about and I couldn’t help but get a great deal of demented enjoyment from it. Sometimes that type of delirium is exactly what is needed in the movies we love.