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Being there
A UK region 2 DVD review of MOTHER AND SON / MAT I SYN by Slarek
 

Mother and Son is one of those films that provides a genuine challenge to anyone attempting to clearly define exactly what it is that makes it so damned special. As a reviewer, you get used to dealing in the traditional elements of narrative cinema, things like pace, story, humour, dialogue, action and tension. But consider the following plot summary:

A loving and dutiful son comforts his dying mother in her final days.

And that's it. Story wise there's nothing else to it. They sit, they talk, he carries her into the woodland that surrounds her isolated home and later leaves her to rest and walks by himself. There, I've covered just about everything except the fine detail. And it's paced so slowly that everything but the soundtrack intermittently comes to a complete halt.

And yet Mother and Son is a beautiful and intensely moving cinematic experience. Director Alexandr Sokurov (Russian Ark, The Sun) is not interested in giving this event a familiar dramatic context, but instead has chosen to capture the essence and emotion of the experience, visually and aurally exploring the all-encompassing feelings of love and impending loss that come from watching someone that close to you fade from the world. There is no set-up, no pre-event character building, no sudden revelations or twists – this is cinema pared down to its narrative basics.

From the start, the location is as much a character in the film as the two human protagonists, the woodland setting isolating and focussing our attention on the pair and theirs on each other, its visual and aural majesty reflecting a heightened sensory awareness of surroundings that are soon to be lost forever. It's this element that gives the film is very specific and hypnotic hold, and one that will strike a particular chord with anyone who has comforted a loved one in their final hours. Such an experience makes you acutely aware of things you may have previously taken for granted, of the way the sunlight hits the landscape, of the sound of wind or rain on trees, of the colours the sky cycles through as a storm approaches, of nature's unhurried longevity and of our relative insignificance in its cycle. It's something the son here repeatedly pauses in his tracks to acknowledge and appreciate, and when he later wanders alone into the woods and allows his grief to overwhelm him, the emotional power of the sequence comes not from a traditional facial close-up, but his long-shot placement in a landscape that offers comfort and even abstract support, but that cannot share in his loss.

Aleksei Fyodorov's consistently extraordinary cinematography renders the intimate and the everyday with the light and compositional beauty of the Caspar David Friedrich paintings that were the acknowledged inspiration for the film's aesthetic, the angular anamorphosis of many shots an expressionistic realisation of that disorientating sense that the foundations of your emotional world have begun to crumble and slip away. Equally evocative is the soundtrack, which brings to the fore the traditionally background sounds of nature with an aural precision that is sometimes startling, and Mikhail Ivanovich's haunting, drifting score never strays even close to sentimentality.

Throughout film history, the death of a loved one has been used to manipulate audiences for dramatic purpose. Relying primarily on the heightened emotional reactions of the cast, some very specific camera angles, and a music score that tells us in no uncertain terms just what we should be feeling, it's a formula familiar enough to qualify as cliché, a cinematic blunt instrument that demands we feel for the unreal. And you know what, even us more cynical film fans sometimes still succumb – if we care enough about the characters then we really can feel for their loss. In Mother and Son, Sokurov strips away the dramatic baggage, and in the process achieves a purity and truth that is genuinely overwhelming. It's as far from the standard western cinema approach as you could expect, but this has not proved a barrier to international appreciation of the film's considerable achievement. In an interview with critic Amy Taubin, seeing the film prompted Martin Scorsese to ask a most pertinent question: "There's a new Sokurov film Paul Schrader told me about. This is also cinema. Why can't America make cinema like that?"

sound and vision

The letterboxed transfer here (it measures a somewhat unusual 1.54:1 on my reading) has clearly been sourced from a German original (the film is a Russian/German co-production), and as with some other Sokurov films, the actual image quality is hard to judge with any real accuracy due to the director's very specific manipulation of the visuals – my initial suspicion that all was not well with Artificial Eye's DVD of The Sun, for example, was laid to rest when I saw exactly the same, deliberately washed-out and darkened look on the cinema print. Definition is good in places and softer in others, notably wide exteriors, while dusts spots tend to come and go, perhaps indicating reel changes, a favourite gathering spot for dirt and damage on film prints.

Sound is so important to the film's effectiveness and the Dolby stereo 2.0 track here is just lovely, pristine in clarity and displaying a tonal range and separation worthy of a good 5.1 mix.

extra features

A Humble Life / Smirennaya zhizn (76:18)
Now here's an odd thing. I'm used to discovering a whole range of supporting material under a DVD's Extra Features banner, from interviews to featurettes to short films. But I don't recall ever finding a feature-length work by the same director there, one whose running time actually exceeds that of the main film.

A Humble Life is certainly true to its title, a documentary study of the day-to-day world of Umeno Mathuyoshi, an old woman who lives in an isolated mountain house in the Nara prefecture in Japan. Her real name is only revealed at the end, the male Russian voice-over identifying her as Hiroko, a lost love in what at first appears to be letters and memories. Later indications, however, suggest we are listening to the words of Umeno's late husband's spirit, who has returned to the house to observe his wife in her simple daily rituals. Thus the camera lingers at length as Umeno brushes her hair, eats a meal, warms her hands against the cold that penetrates the house, or sews a funeral kimono, her only source of income.

There is certainly a logic to the film's pairing with Mother and Son. They were made the same year, are similar in pace and tone, have at their centre a woman at the twilight of her life who is living in relative isolation (only a trio of chanting monks in search of charity and a moped that wakes her from a momentary doze connect us with the outside world in any way), and a heightened awareness of the sounds and imagery of nature – birds, a fluttering moth or a crawling insect are as prominent as thunder or falling rain.

In many ways A Humble Life exerts a similarly hypnotic hold to Mother and Son, but the balance here is not quite as finely judged. Sokurov's long close-up drifts across Hiroko's face and hands do occasionally become a little repetitive, suggesting a fascination on the director's part with the texture and detail of her features and skin that some will regard as bordering on the morbid. But as a whole it has a similarly poetic quality to the main feature, and certainly equals it in the captivating beauty of its observational detail. It also has its own emotional sting, delivered by Umeno in the final five minutes when she reads aloud what we assume are her own views on her life and feelings, her sense of loss and loneliness captured in a few carefully chosen words of haiku.

Shot on Betacam SP and framed 4:3, the image has been drained of primary colours, but contrast and detail are generally good, although there is some digital grain here and there and the occasional picture jitter, suggesting this transfer was sourced from a film print rather than the video master. The soundtrack is once again striking in its clarity, mix and tonal range – distant thunder has impressive bass – but is a little clipped in sequences of Umeno working.

Also included is a brief biography and filmography of Alexandr Sokurov.

summary

A genuinely remarkable unification of art, poetry, nature and humanity, Mother and Son is unique and beautiful cinema, a bold and visionary demonstration that film does not have to be about story or character to exert a powerful emotional punch. As for Artificial Eye's DVD, well a pristine anamorphic transfer free of dust spots would have been nice, but I've no complaints with the soundtrack or that extra feature – indeed, I'm still surprised the release wasn't marketed as a Sokurov double-bill, which is essentially what you get here. For that and the unique quality of both films, this release has to come recommended.

Mother and Son
Mat i syn
Russia / Germany 1997
68 mins
director
Aleksandr Sokurov
starring
Aleksei Ananishnov
Gudrun Geyer

A Humble Life
Smirennaya zhizn
Japan / Russia 1997
76 mins
director
Aleksandr Sokurov

DVD details
region 2
video .
1.54:1 / 4:3 non-anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
Russian / Japanese
subtitles
English
extras

A Humble Life documentary

Director biography
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
25 June 2007
review posted
23 July 2007

related reviews
The Sun
Alexandra

See all of Slarek's reviews