Issue 31 (2011)

Nikolai and Elena Renard: Mama (2010)

reviewed by Emily Schuckman © 2011

mama directorsDespite the fact that neither of the film’s two characters utters a single word in its 71 minute duration, Mama delivers a forceful and unsentimental portrayal of a relationship between a mother and her son. Well-known theater actress Liudmila Alekhina provides a subtle and engaging performance as an exhausted mother who simultaneously loathes and hovers over her morbidly obese, adult son. First-time actor, Sergei Nazarov, plays the four hundred pound man who relies on her for even the most intimate tasks. The film, based on a true story, chronicles a day in the life of mother and son, capturing well the mutually unsatisfying and dysfunctional relationship in which the two are locked. While the mother is clearly a domineering force, the son’s acceptance, or even expectation, of her constant care makes him an equally complicit partner in their misery. The film slowly escalates the tension of the relationship as the mother, whose day is occupied by domestic work while the son ambles through the city, spends the evening hours preparing her son for a journey he will take the following day. Ambiguous are the purpose and permanence of the trip and whether it will mean liberation or even lonelier isolation for the codependent pair.

First-time filmmakers, Nikolai and Elena Renard, emerged from obscurity with the debut of their film at the 2010 Rotterdam film festival, immediately garnering the attention of critics and audiences alike. Mama was selected as a contender for the festival’s Tiger Award, beating out other higher profile and better funded films. This film, submitted to the festival by the directors themselves, was made with a budget of $8000, mostly borrowed equipment, and a novice crew. Though it did not ultimately win the Tiger Award, the Renards have been recognized as emerging directors in Russian avant-garde cinema and the film is rapidly making the rounds internationally on the 2010 film festival circuit. Mama has been screened at the Kinotavr International Film Festival in Sochi, the Split International Festival of New Film, the ERA New Horizons International Film Festival in Poland, the Brooklyn Art Museum and the Maryland International Film Festival.

mamaThe Renards’ film is a blend of neo-realism and avant-garde. Not only is it devoid of dialogue, but the camera is static throughout, minimal editing is used and there is no addition of non-diegetic sound. The result is a heightening of the viewers’ senses as they become increasingly engrossed in the naturalistic soundtrack of the everyday: a fly buzzing in the bathroom; the sound of dishes clanking during meal preparation; the son’s huffing and puffing as he labors up a seemingly endless flight of stairs. Additionally, the absence of dialogue highlights a film’s visuals, forcing the viewer to engage fully with the actors’ performances and surroundings in order to decipher meaning. While this sensory shift is primarily a positive element of the film, some viewers may find the intensity difficult to sustain, especially in the film’s most meditative moments. The Renards rely on almost entirely medium shots, shot at eye level with the actors, mother and son moving in and out of the frame in real time. Though there is a strong narrative element in Mama, the stillness and length of the shots make the film more notable as a streamlined series of “tableaux vivants,” each still life a self-contained story of lives lived not according to plan.

The Renards strike an impressive balance of experience and naiveté with their use of the classically trained Alekhina, affiliated with the Maiakovskii Theater from 1976 until her death in 2008 (three months after shooting this film), and novice Nazarov, discovered by the directors on the internet. Despite the lack of dialogue, the two draw viewers into their interior worlds and sustain our interest for the duration of the film—a remarkable testament to their chemistry and ability to create emotional highs and lows through physical expressions and gestures alone. The opening shot, a forty-second study of an empty kitchen, delivers the effect of watching a play, surveying the set design while waiting for the actors to reveal themselves on stage. The stillness of the camera, coupled with the absence of sound compels the viewer to not only double check that the film is running, but to really observe the scene: a dingy Soviet-era refrigerator with an equally out-dated television atop it; boxes of sewing supplies spread out on the table; impeccable cleanliness despite yellowing walls and broken cabinets. Even when the actors do appear on screen, the feeling of watching a play does not disappear, maintaining the intimacy and deliberation of the theater in a way that films with more dynamic cinematography do not.

mamaThe combination of fixed camera and lengthy shots has the psychological effect of removing the lens from the viewing experience, reinforcing the theater-like quality of viewing Mama. Though there are many examples that illustrate the effectiveness of the directors’ attempts at creating a series of tableaus, one stands out for its impressive blend of inert symbolic and live action. Four minutes in duration, the long shot situates the camera in a park, focused on a statue of a doe tending to her fawn. The statue alone appears in the shot for twenty seconds until there is a glimpse of the overweight son in a distant cluster of trees. The camera remains fixed while he takes a full minute to walk to the statue, where he stands and eats for another three. The slow meditation of this scene, and the distance kept throughout by the fixed long shot, allows the viewer to observe first-hand the difficulty and slowness with which the son moves through space and to ponder the implications of the scene: the obese son eating, alone and lonely at the base of a statue with its clear valorization of motherhood. While the linkage between physical nourishment and maternal love would normally evoke positive associations, it instead becomes a grotesque reminder of the mother’s complicity in her son’s morbid obesity and is symbolic of the dysfunctional relationship that is the film’s focus.

The portrayal of the physical is an essential element of this film. Not only does this man’s obesity provide a meta-critique challenging the long-standing positive trope of mother as nurturer and provider of physical and emotional nourishment, but it fully displays on screen a body type not often seen in cinema. The viewer is simultaneously compelled and repelled watching this man squeeze through the door of a bathroom cubicle, struggle to sit, or, in one notable scene, lay down in a bed barely large enough for a child, much less a man of his size. Not shying away from displaying the son’s body, the filmmakers chronicle in vivid detail the bathing ritual enacted by mother and son. The obese man sits on a stool, completely naked, his fat folding over upon itself, hanging low enough to obscure his genitals. His face reveals a sort of humiliated indifference and mild annoyance as his mother scrubs him thoroughly, even splashing water in the fat rolls between his legs and cleaning behind his ears. Throughout the process, both participants remain aloof, never once making eye contact with each other or the camera, and take no pleasure from this intimate connection.  In this revealing scene, the normally sentimental tableau of mother tending to her child (the doe nuzzling her fawn), is again made grotesque and troubling by the detachment of mother and son and reduction of the grown man to helpless child.

mamaAnother critical theme is the son’s sexual desire, made evident in one scene as he walks past a women’s clothing store, stopping to gawk at a mannequin dressed in a skimpy black dress. The camera is situated as if inside the shop, looking out through the window and captures the look of sexual longing, impotence and unobtainable desire on the son’s face as he fixates on the mannequin. The theme recurs later that night when he sneaks a postcard-size item, presumably containing a pornographic image, hidden behind a map in his bedroom and conceals it under his pillow. Later, the stunting of the son’s sexual desires by his relationship with his mother is reinforced as the camera returns to the shop window. This time though, it is the mother stopping in front, not to gaze at the scantily clad mannequin, but to lift her dress slightly, adjust her stockings and move on—the sexual desire captured in the son’s gaze obliterated by the mother’s practical, asexual efficiency. The return to the display window illustrates for the viewer that the relationship with the mother will ultimately trump the son’s desires for independence or for sexual intimacy.

As miserable as the two seem, the son’s impending trip is clearly distressing to his mother. Her anxiety about his departure reveals itself in the few moments when she pauses from her constant domestic activity to reflect on herself: her physical exhaustion, the wrinkles formed in her face and her hands swollen and chapped from endless domestic chores. As obvious as it is that the mother is in large part to blame for her son’s condition, the viewer is empathetic toward the woman who has devoted her life to this helpless, juvenile man. In several scenes, her regret over her son’s condition is palpable, but so is the sense of loss she will feel when he leaves. It is this fear that motivates her to remove the alarm clock from her son’s room, set to wake him for his flight the next morning. It is only after she has assured that her son will oversleep and miss his flight that she herself can sleep.

mamaThe mother’s confidence that she knows what is best for her son is bolstered when she turns on the television in the morning to the news that a plane bound for Perm from Moscow—presumably the flight her son was to be on—has crashed. After nearly sixty minutes of quiet, the viewer has become so engaged in the characters’ lonely silence that the clipped cadence of the journalist’s account of the crash is exceptionally jarring not only within the primary diegesis of the film, but to the viewer who has accustomed his ears to deciphering meaning from purely visual cues. The disembodied voice of the journalist continues for more than a minute, even after the mother exits the shot—leaving the viewer, as in the opening scene, to deliberate on the empty kitchen. While the son sleeps, the mother prepares a celebratory meal and then sits next to his bed, waiting for him to wake.  After a brief interlude in which the credits appear on screen, the camera returns to the bedroom, the sun having set now, casting the room in the shadow of night. The mother is asleep in the chair she has occupied since morning; the son lies unmoved in his bed. This final tableau provides an ambiguous future for the mother and son: is it the evasion of death that will mark a new beginning for the two or a twist of fate that makes the son’s death unavoidable? The ambiguity of the ending not only leaves the viewer with unanswered questions, but recontextualizes the film. What were snapshots from a seemingly ordinary day become, potentially, a series of meditations on the final days of a life not yet lived and an illustration of the very Russian concept of the irony of fate.   

Emily Schuckman
San Francisco Art Institute

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Mama, Russia, 2010
Color, 71 minutes, HDCam
Director, Screenplay, Producer: Nikolai and Elena Renard
Cinematography: Samvel Gandzhumian
Production Design Kirill Petrovskii
Cast: Liudmila Alekhina, Sergei Nazarov
Producers Elena Renard, Nikolai Renard
Production: Renard Film

Nikolai and Elena Renard: Mama (2010)

reviewed by Emily Schuckman © 2011

Updated: 12 Jan 11