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Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov) 1997

 

    Distilled almost to the point of nothingness, Aleksandr Sokurovís Mother and Son is a beautiful, but empty, lesson in dying gracefully. About twenty minutes into the film, we become accustomed enough to the filmís editing rhythms and minimalist narrative to realize that it has nothing to offer besides its simplistic two-character tale of a dying parent. Those two characters Ė a mother and a son, naturally - are nearly clean slates. The small details that we learn about the pair as the story progresses are so vague that we can superimpose whatever personal experiences we want on them. I suppose the idea is that all men in the audience will relate to the son and all women will relate to mother. Everyone will leave feeling a bit drained and relieved at the end. I imagine that the only motivation in making a film as spare as this one about a relationship so primal must be to gather some sort of solace in the ability to identify with all of the rest of humanity, even if in a minor way. Sokurov shoots for timelessness (only the narratorís sweatshirt and a chugging train date the film in any way), and achieves it, in a way, by keeping things so terribly generic. Whether that sort of emptiness of detail is admirable is far more debatable.

 

    The movie shoots for poeticism, but usually only achieves a realism thatís been idealized through the cinematic distortion that Sokurov provides. There's some stunning nature photography, but it's warped by the lenses that the director uses, suggesting there's something decidedly unnatural about death. Most of the filmís most beautiful moments are a result of the sound editing. The barking of an off-screen dog feels more cathartic than anything else in the film is. Great directors like Bergman and Tarkovsky have challenged material like this and won, but Sokurov comes up short of the transcendence that he shoots for. We can admire the simplicity of the story, and the detail of the observations that Sokurov makes, but they donít make a fair substitute for saying something more substantive. The actors donít leave any impression, positive or negative, and one canít be sure that theyíre even professional actors. As a result of the filmís minimalism, it ends up being more distancing than inclusive. The film isnít a horrible failure though, and doesnít really even make any major missteps besides the near-muteness of its characters, but thatís because it doesnít take any big chances. Itís a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained for the director, and at the end of its seventy-odd minute running time, the audience hasnít gained much either.

 

* * 1/2 

05-10-02 

Jeremy Heilman