Friday February 20, 1998
It's a temptation to deal with Alexander Sokurov's magisterial and poetic new film "Mother and Son" by describing what it isn't. Absent from the screen are fast cutting, explosive action, glib dialogue and complex plotting. And in a sense this beautiful and serene film does stand as a welcome antidote to cinema's eternal obsession with what's new, what's hot, what's happening.
But more pertinent ultimately than what "Mother and Son" doesn't do is what it does by realizing potentialities in the medium that most films aren't aware even exist. Made with exquisite care by a director in formidable control of his skills, this Russian work makes demands on its viewers but then rewards them with an impressive largess.
Sokurov's delicate vision of a son caring for his dying mother couldn't be in less of a hurry though it lasts only 73 minutes. With its emphasis on long takes and the slowest of camera movements, "Mother and Son" creates a hypnotic mood that compels viewers to enter its simple, languorous world, forcing them to examine each frame and create their own focus of interest. Because it's in effect pulling us into a dream world, seeing this film requires an audience willing to submit to its pace, willing to participate in an experience that can in no way be rushed.
While he's been making features and documentaries since 1978, Sokurov is all but unknown in this country, partially because his tone poem style of filmmaking made him an artistic nonperson in the ideology-driven Soviet Union. "The fact that I was involved in the visual side of art made the government suspicious," Sokurov told director Paul Schrader in a recent Film Comment interview. "The nature of my films was different from others. They didn't actually know what to punish me for--and that confusion caused them huge irritation."
Yet unlike the work of some of the directors he's been compared to, including his Russian mentor Andrei Tarkovsky or Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, there is nothing obscure or ambiguous about this film. "Mother and Son" has a wonderful clearness and simplicity to its narrative with a story line as straightforward and direct as its title.
A nameless mother and son (Gudrun Geyer and Alexi Ananishnov, both nonprofessionals) are discovered together, their closeness underlined by the conceit that they apparently dream the same dreams. The setting is a rural cabin, the time could be any time in the last century, and the only fact that needs to be known is soon obvious: The mother is fatally ill.
What happens over the next hour are the small occurrences of a single day. The son combs his mother's hair, shares reminiscences as he reads to her from old, forgotten postcards, attempts to soothe her when she's in pain. Most dramatically he takes her for a walk in the surrounding woods and fields, carrying her gently in his arms. At times these two seem like lovers, which, the film is telling us, is in a sense what they are.
Critical to the impression "Mother and Son" makes is the powerful use of simple sounds like a crackling fire, a howling wind and a train whistle, and the impact of the carefully muted but indelible color scheme Sokurov created with cinematographer Alexi Fyodorov.
The film's emphasis on the importance of landscape and nature has a very Russian feel. Luminous shots of intense black clouds moving into the frame, of the wind rippling a field of grain like an ocean, and, most memorably, of the haunting vapor trail left by a distant locomotive, underline the strength simple yet poetic images can have.
It is the accomplishment of "Mother and Son" to use these straightforward ingredients to create a powerful piece of work. The dialogue by Yuri Arabov that passes between mother and son is sparse and almost exclusively small talk, but the film presents it in a way that makes the deep and abiding connection between these two, the sense of their inner life, inescapable.
An experience like "Mother and Son" is at odds with the way most Americans experience film, something the director himself recognized in a recent interview when he said, "In the West, people don't let themselves be as moved by art. Russian people allow it all the way into the depths of their soul." Anyone looking for that kind of sensation, anyone eager to reexperience the core power of cinema, could not do better than see "Mother and Son" for themselves.
Mother and Son, 1998. Unrated. A Zero Film production, co-produced with O Film and Severnyj Fond, released by International Film Circuit Inc. Director Alexander Sokurov. Producer Thomas Kufus. Executive producers Katrin Schlosser, Martin Hagemann, Alexander Golutva. Screenplay Yuri Arabov. Cinematographer Alexei Fyodorov. Editor Leda Semyonova. Music Mikhail Glinka, Otmar Nussio, Giuseppi Verdi. Set design Vera Zelinskaya, Esther Ritterbusch. Running time: 1 hour, 13 minutes. Gudrun Geyer as Mother. Alexei Ananishnov as Son.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times