Mother of TearsReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/02/08 14:19:42
With his very first film, the internationally acclaimed suspense thriller “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage,” Italian director Dario Argento announced himself as a screen stylist of the first order. Over the next few decades, he would consistently reconfirm that notion with a string of gloriously gruesome masterworks that combined fever-dream narratives and dazzlingly staged set-pieces of murder and mayhem that were as intricately choreographed and beautifully executed--half grand ballet and half Grand Guignol--as anything ever seen on a movie screen. Unfortunately, as his career progressed, the tastes of the moviegoing public sadly shifted and they now frowned on films that indulged almost entirely in a cheerfully flamboyant visual style at the expense of everything else--they now demanded plots that made sense, uncomplicated heroes that they could root for and uncomplicated bad guys whose motives were easy to understand and whose plans were foiled in the nick of time. As a result, Argento’s career, at least in the American market, began to flounder considerably and few of the films that Argento would make in the next 30 years would received any kind of theatrical distribution in the U.S. and on the rare occasions when they did, it was often in heavily-edited versions (when his 1985 film “Phenomena” finally played theatrically here, it was in a version 20 minutes shorter than the original cut( that pretty much made hash of his beautifully staged set-pieces and his intricately designed compositions. In desperation, Argento would occasionally try to reign in his natural tendencies by making films that relied less on the fancy visuals and more on conventional narratives to tell their stories but these efforts (especially 2004’s “The Card Player”) proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Argento’s skills as a filmmaker did not extend to his storytelling abilities and were generally so dire that even the most devoted partisans of his work found it difficult to defend them as anything other than unfortunate aberrations.In the last couple of years, however, there seems to have been a subtle but welcome shift in the cultural wind in these parts that has elevated Argento’s reputation considerably. Nearly all of his films have finally been made available on DVD in their original uncut versions and in their proper aspect ratios (save for the still-missing “Four Flies for Grey Velvet” and “The Five Days of Milan” and an unbearably shoddy transfer of his 2001 effort “Sleepless”). Virtually every hot new horror film director cites him as a key influence when they are being interviewed. His two contributions to the Showtime anthology series “Masters of Horror” were generally regarded as two of the better episodes of a show that varied wildly in quality from week to week. Hell, even everyone’s favorite pregnant teen spitfire Juno took up his cause in a debate as to whether he or Herschel Gordon Lewis was the superior filmmaker (and with all due respect to Lewis, Argento wins that debate if for no other reason than the fact that he manages to keep his films in focus throughout). As a final capper to his recent resurgence, Argento has finally given his legions of fans the one thing that they have been eagerly anticipating for nearly three decades--the conclusion of the so-called “Three Mothers” trilogy of supernatural horror films that he began in 1977 with the instant classic “Suspiria,” continued with the even-more delirious 1980 follow-up “Inferno” (which never even got a theatrical release in this country) and then abandoned in order to do other things. Finally, after nearly three decades of rumors and false starts, Argento has returned to the trilogy that made him internationally famous with “Mother of Tears” and for fans of the filmmaker who has been skeptical about the film since its inception, partly due to the uneven track record of late for sequels appearing after long periods of franchise dormancy and partly because of Argento’s admittedly uneven track record over the last few years, it will come as a relief to learn that it is just as twisted, surprising and gruesome as anything that he has given us in the past and it is a more than worthy successor to its two predecessors.
For those coming to the party late, the three mothers are a trio of powerful witches who have been bringing darkness and chaos into the world from the basements of their specially designed lairs found throughout the world. In “Suspiria,” we were introduced to the Mother of Sighs, who was the oldest of the bunch and who ran a diabolical coven out of a ballet school in Berlin. “Inferno” gave us the Mother of Darkness, who wreaked her own brand of havoc in New York City. With “Mother of Tears,” Argento gives us, perhaps not unexpectedly, the Mother of Tears (Moran Atias), who is said to be the most cruel and beautiful of the three and who resides in the hidden chambers of her dwelling in Rome awaiting the moment when she can be set free to finish the job of bringing death and destruction to one and all that her sisters were unable to complete themselves. As the film opens, workmen digging near a church in Viterbo, Italy uncover a coffin that contains a body and a sealed box covered with oddball symbols. The priest reburies the body but send the box off to a Roman museum for further examination. Since the chief curator is away, his assistant, Gabrielle (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) and restoration intern Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) decide to open it themselves (spilling a little blood in the process, naturally) and discover three strange figurines and a dagger inside. While Sarah goes off in search of a book to help identify the artifacts, a trio of bizarre demons and their helper monkey materialize to dispatch Gabrielle in one of the goriest kills that Argento has ever dreamed up. Sarah manages to escape but is unable to convince the police of what she saw--perfectly understandable, I suppose, when the only witness claims that a hideous murder was perpetrated by, and I quote, “three deformed people and a monkey.”
What Sarah doesn’t realize, of course, is that by opening that container, the Mother of Tears has been awakened and within 24 hours, Rome is overrun by an orgy of senseless violence that has inexplicably gripped the populace while hordes of witches from around the world descend on the city in order to reunite with their leader. After doing some legwork and evading further attacks, Sarah discovers that the Mother of Tears has indeed been unleashed and the violence sweeping the streets of Rome will quickly engulf all of mankind if she is not stopped. She also discovers that her late mother (Daria Nicolodi, Asia‘s real-life mother and Dario‘s ex-wife) was actually a white (i.e. good) witch who passed her powers on to her daughter before perishing in an attempt to stop the Mother of Darkness (as seen in “Inferno”) and as a result, Sarah may be the only person capable of stopping the Mother of Tears before she and her followers destroy the world. What transpires from this point on is something that I will leave for you to discover except to note that the proceedings involves plenty of blood, a healthy sampling of nudity, ghostly apparitions, homages to practically every title in Argento’s filmography, a brief appearance from the legendary Udo Kier and such breathless and deathless lines of dialogue as “Usually I have one exorcism request per month,” “They are burning the churches--it is getting worse” and “Go to my place--they’ll never look for you there!”
As daft as “Mother of Tears” may sound from the above description, I have actually made it sound far more lucid and coherent than it actually plays out on the screen. No doubt there will be plenty of people willing to shun the film wholesale, as they have with most of Argento’s past work, because the plot makes absolutely no sense on a logical level and because of Argento’s cheerful willingness to focus all of his energies towards his big visual set pieces at the expense of anything even vaguely resembling narrative cohesion. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker--a hack on the level of Eli Roth, for example--such an approach would be fairly disastrous but with Argento, this is not a problem. Face it, even Argento’s most devoted supporters will admit that writing a coherent story and getting subtle performances from his actors have never been his strongest points as a filmmaker--his weakest films (such as “The Card Player” and “Trauma”) are specifically the ones in which he has tried (and failed) to concentrate more heavily on a conventional narrative structure For the most part, Argento’s plots tend to work more on the level of a fever dream or an exceptionally flamboyant grand opera--every single detail may not fit together with jigsaw precision but you can always follow along with what is going on, no matter how bizarre things may get. Regarding the actors, he likewise goes for grand, operatic emotions and while they may not seem especially nuanced by any stretch of the imagination. For example, if you knew her only from her work here, for example, you would come away from “Mother of Tears” without suspecting for a moment that Asia Argento is a supremely gifted actress, as the upcoming “The Last Mistress” clearly demonstrates. However, the over-the-top performances fit in perfectly with the film’s world-gone-wrong conceit--though the mind boggles at what might have transpired if Asia Argento had been cast as the Mother of Tears herself.. Besides, if you aren’t willing to accept a certain level of flamboyant weirdness from a film in which the entire world is quickly devolving into insanity, then perhaps “Mother of Tears” is not the film for you after all--perhaps you would be more at home with the likes of “The Happening.”
For Argento buffs, the people who have been awaiting this film with perhaps even more anticipation, intensity and dread than was felt by the people looking forward to “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” a few weeks ago, the biggest question surrounding “Mother of Tears” is whether the film fits in with the previous entries in the “Three Mothers” cycle and whether it lives up to their admittedly high standards. While it may not be better than “Suspiria” or “Inferno”--which is nothing to be ashamed of as they are two of the finest works from one of the finest horror filmmakers of all time--it more than lives up to the promise of those earlier films without ever coming across as a slavish imitation of them. Some fans have complained that the film lacks the go-for-baroque visual style of the previous entries--both the wild color schemes and the often-outlandish camera moves that they indulged in so frequently have been muted considerably here--but if they were paying attention, they would realize that this particular approach makes logical sense. In “Suspiria” and “Inferno,” we followed our innocent and feckless heroes as they journeyed from the ordinary world into the supernatural and the further that they moved into it, the stranger things began to look and sound. With “Mother of Tears,” Argento is giving us just the opposite--the supernatural world is finally bubbling up and slowly invading our world--and therefore, it makes more sense that what we are seeing should look fairly ordinary for the most part until Hell literally breaks loose in the final reels and when that happens, it is unlikely that anyone will be complaining that he is being too staid and restrained. As for the horrific elements, Argento is less interested here in scaring us per se as he is in unnerving us with moments of sudden and shocking imagery that jolts us so unexpectedly that we can never get comfortable enough to figure out what he is going to come up with next. More importantly, after seeing countless horror films that claim that they are fiercely original and are pushing the envelope in every scene, only to wind up giving us just another helping of the same old thing, this is a film that keeps managing to top itself throughout in terms of sheer outrageousness.
For Argento fans, “Mother of Tears” is the film that you have been waiting for in more ways than one--it is stylistically bold, grandly grisly and as wildly inventive and entertaining as anything that he has ever done before.. That said, this doesn’t mean that those unfamiliar with his work won’t be able to enjoy it as well. You don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of Argento’s oeuvre to appreciate the film (though a brush-up probably wouldn’t hurt). All you need is an appreciation for a film and a filmmaker that refuse to play by the prescribed rules of genre filmmaking and you should do just fine. Oh yeah, you should probably have a fairly high tolerance for the red stuff as well.This review is a significant expansion of a piece commissioned for the current calendar for Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. The original version can be found online at http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/currentcalendar.pdf
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|