Mother of Tears

| July 7, 2008

I love movies. It may seem a silly and obvious thing to say, given my choice to write reviews, but I’m making a point here, so stick with me. So, where were we? Oh yeah. I love movies, so I tend to go into the summer season with the same list of must-see films that everyone else has. But if there was one release this summer that stood out from the crowd as an event film for me, it was Mother of Tears.
As much as I hate fanboys, I have to admit, when it comes to Dario Argento, I jiggle like a Jell-O mold in sniveling, fanboy adoration. Ever since I first witnessed the primary-color glory that is Suspiria, I was hooked. I quickly devoured the rest of this influential director’s canon. Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat o’ Nine Tails, Tenebrae, Opera and Phenomena only drew me deeper into my fascination for the director and the giallo genre that he had mastered. I was so enthralled with the trappings of his work–the lush cinematography that made such wonderful use of color, the macabre yet elegant scenes of violence and gore, operatic scores and the over-the-top tone–that I was more than willing to overlook the bad dubbing, weak acting and logic-impaired plots and characters that often plagued his films.
But about ten years ago, I started to notice some glaring problems with his newer films. They were playing like parodies of his best work. Films like Trauma, The Stendahl Syndrome, Phantom of the Opera and the very ill-conceived The Card Player signaled a downward spiral that eventually found this onetime great filmmaker finally scraping the bottom of the barrel, with two dismal episodes of the Masters of Horror TV show that completely eschewed his brilliant cinematic techniques in favor of flatly shot, boring stories that used excessive gore and nudity as a crutch.
Despite the recent disappointments, news of a new Argento film still brought me to attention. The hope sprang anew that one of my favorite directors would rediscover his abilities and produce a new classic. The fact that Mother of Tears was the final film in the loose “Three Mothers” trilogy that also included Suspiria and the hallucinatory Inferno, only made the anticipation that much greater. Throw in the fact that the film was to be released unrated to American theater screens and I was ready to declare this the greatest film ever produced, sight unseen. But as a reviewer, I did my duty and waited until viewing the final product before writing one word. It’s a good thing I did.
The story is simple and a throwback to classic Argento. An ancient urn is unearthed in a cemetery and delivered to a museum in Rome. When the urn is opened by museum employees Sarah (Asia Argento, Last Days) and Giselle (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Opera), they unwittingly release the Mother of Tears, an evil witch bent on world destruction. As the Mother induces cases of murder and suicide across the city, Sarah learns of her own genetic gifts as a witch and discovers that it is her destiny to fight the Mother, setting up a showdown between the two women.
Unlike his older films, this time around Argento manages to cast actors actually capable of speaking English, eliminating the need for some terrible dubbing. Unfortunately, most of this cast is not up to the task of taking such an outlandish plot and bringing some believability to it. Within individual scenes, each actor seems to be playing the material for different tones, ranging from tragedy to comedy to soap opera-style outlandishness. When veteran crazy-man Udo Kier (Blade) appears, giving the subtlest performance in the film, it becomes all too obvious that the proceedings have devolved into camp.
Another problem that rears its ugly head is that every scene feels edited down to the barest possible elements to move the plot along. While minimalists might applaud this as a trimming of unnecessary fat, it doesn’t work for this film since there is so much story to be covered. It lends to a further weakening of the performances since every line of dialogue feels like it was delivered in a rushed manner.
But the biggest flaw is the fact that the story is too big for the obviously small budget. For a film about the possible apocalypse we are given very few glimpses of the violence and chaos that is supposed to be tearing Rome apart. Instead, Argento relies on several shots of witches that look like drunken drag queens strutting around, laughing maniacally while they menace Sarah and anyone who she turns to for help. While they are obviously intended to represent the extreme nature of evil, their presence only pushes the film further into campy territory.
Still, even with all of its flaws, I found things to admire in the film. I could see Argento taking small steps back to his more classic movies in the excellent cinematography. While it’s not as saturated in color as his best work, it’s crisply shot and the fluid camera lends a menacing atmosphere sorely missing from the story or the performances. The disturbing yet beautiful score by Claudio Simonetti also helps pick up the slack to keep the whole production from completely flying off the rails. And then of course, there is the return to the imaginative violence that once set Argento so far apart from the crowd. While the gore is not as shocking as it used to be, he does manage to pull off some truly disturbing set-pieces that test the gag reflex. Gorehounds should find a lot to love with this one.
By this point, it’s become obvious that I can’t recommend the film to anyone aside from other hardcore Argento fans. Still, despite the numerous disappointments offered up here, I can’t help but focus on the positive fact that the director seems to be on the rebound. It may be a slow climb back to the top, but he’s given me just enough hope to look forward to his next release. Maybe I’m a sucker, but I can’t help it. I’m a fanboy.

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