It’s not uncommon for promising short films to be developed into feature-length productions, the extended runtime giving the filmmaker the chance to really explore the narrative that began in the shorter form. Madre sees writer/director Rodrigo Sorogoyen doing just that, expanding on his riveting 2017 Oscar-nominated short film of the same name in which a mother receives a terrifying phone call from her six-year-old son who says he’s lost and alone, having been separated from his father on a beach in a foreign country. At just 19 minutes long, the film is a tense affair as Sorogoyen’s focus is on Marta (Marta Nieto), the mother of the title, who’s helpless to do anything to keep her son safe. Nieto reprises the role in this feature length version (now her character is named Elena), and the film begins with what appears to be actual footage from the original short film—or a very close recreation.
Instead of playing out the urgent scenario of her son Iván’s panicked call, his battery draining and an unknown man approaching him, Sorogoyen departs from that desperate moment to meet Elena 10 years later. A grieving mother, she’s uprooted her life from Spain to the French beach town where her son was last seen, becoming a waitress at a tourist trap on the shore and creating some version of a life for herself with her new boyfriend, Joseba (Alex Brendemühl). She’s a shell of the woman she once was (even just meeting her briefly in the film’s intense prologue, we understand this is someone full of life and capable of great strength), and she moves through her life now as if in a trance—a fact Sorogoyan and cinematographer Alejandro de Pablo drive home with sweeping tracking shots of the vast expanse of the beach.
The rest of Madre, which Sorogoyen co-wrote with Isabel Peña, might hit as a bit odd if one was expecting a film that focuses on Iván’s disappearance; instead, as focus shifts to Elena’s life without her child, it becomes a poignant exploration of grief that threatens to consume us and the process one has to endure in order to move on. Never far from her mind, Elena looks for Iván everywhere, in the face of every 16-year-old boy who crosses her path. One in particular seems to fascinate her, and still in that trance-like state, she follows him home one evening and spies on him and his family eating dinner on their patio. It’s a confusing move under normal circumstances, but given Elena’s past, we’re inclined to forgive her this transgression as she lives without a way to know what her own son would look like, act like at a similar age.
Except her fascination catches the teenager’s eye, and Jean (Jules Porier) shows up at Elena’s restaurant the next day to let her know he saw her. The two strike up an unusual friendship, something that borders on inappropriate without ever explicitly crossing that line. Instead, their bond is one based on mutual pain and need; Elena, of course, sees her Iván in Jean’s youth and joie de vivre, but Jean, too, is enjoying their newfound connection, the gentle motherly affection she offers as he rebels against his parents’ wishes for him to stay away from her.
Madre is a beautifully realized film, to be sure, and Nieto builds her character’s world view convincingly; when her ex (and Iván’s father) comes back into the picture with some surprising news, we see Elena erupt in a way only he would deserve, only he would understand. The film’s only real weak point, if it can be called that, is its indulgent 128-minute run time; more than once in Elena’s journey through grief, I was surprised to realize how far we’d already come and how far we still had to go. The film more than makes its point about Elena’s harrowing journey, that grief can make us do strange, even dangerous things. It’s an interesting path that the film takes to explore these themes, but one that, in its context, works well enough.
Madre is now streaming at the Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema. A portion of your rental goes to support the cinema.
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