Ranking: #17/111

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov (Russia)       

Genre: Poetic Drama

Mother and Son might be the most painterly film ever made. It appears on the Big Screen like a living Impressionist painting. The narrative is minimal in this most poetic of films: a young son cares for his dying mother in an old, disintegrating farmhouse somewhere in the Russian countryside. The story is subordinate to the imagery and to the film’s tone.

As with Tarkovsky’s work, Aleksandr Sokurov places visual imagery at the heart of his films. There are three stunning aspects of this film: the Impressionistic, dream-like cinematography, the simple universality of the love between mother and son and the poetic contrasts between the shots of a steam train traversing in the distance and the painful stasis of their lives, about to be overtaken by death, as well as the contrasts between Nature’s strength and their frailty and humanity. The net impact of these three factors on the viewer is to provide a timeless feeling, or lived, cinematic experience, of love and vulnerability, a fragility seldom ever represented with such tenderness in film art before. This is a poetic drama of the highest order, a daring experiment in cinematic art.

You can sometimes almost see brushstrokes sweeping across some of the scenes in this living painting of a film. And some of the shots are like still photographs.  There’s a zen-like simplicity and tranquillity in many of the scenes. When you hear the train in the distance, with its hooter, it’s as if it is the sound of time moving forward, leaving the two human figures behind.

It’s a delicately told story of suffering, grief and tenderness shared between them, an elemental existential portrait of a young man’s absolute devotion to his mother. They re-live some of their past but there are no flashbacks or other narrative methods. All they have is their present in which they are confined. Even the windows of their homestead, which is in ruins, are often shuttered. It’s like time has been suspended for them and the postcard and photos they look at are scattered fragments from a past that can’t help them now.

We gradually learn that they have had a hard life as a poor family. Has this hard life, and their current penniless isolation, somehow made everything purer, more soulful?

It is very touching when the ageing, pain-wracked mother drinks fruit juice out of a bottle in a reversal of the typical parent-child relationship. It is also a tender moment when he weeps in the forest, having not shown his grief to his mother. There is such a deep spiritual bond between them (“we have the same dreams”). The soft focus and use of natural light creates an atmosphere of intimacy.

These are two isolated people. Their only joy in life is the fireplace inside and the beauty of Nature outside. The soundscape is as beautiful as the imagery, fusing light music and sounds of birds, wind in the fields, thunder in the background, the crickets, the crackling of their fire, the sounds of boots crunching on the ground or on the floorboards of their isolated homestead, as if reinforcing the effect of watching a painting come alive, becoming a world, on the screen. Sometimes, the sounds are heightened while the imagery stays in soft focus. We interweave seamlessly between the landscape and the soundscape in a finely orchestrated fusion. The mood is elegiac. This must be the most delicate movie ever made!

The pace is slow and measured, appropriate for its aesthetics. There are no antagonists other than the threat of imminent death. It is Nature that is the eternal force, compared to which humans are small and almost insignificant. Nature is the third character in the film. We see and admire the white chalk cliffs near their home, we hear the deep thunder, or the birds chirping, we hear a dog bark, insects buzzing and the breeze in the trees: all the textures and sounds of living Nature. And when she is dying, a moth on her hand symbolises her spirit about to be set free from the confines of her aged, frail body.

For ten years, Sokurov’s films were banned in the Soviet Union. Like Tarkovsky, though, he refused to compromise his art. Aren’t we as lovers of true cinema fortunate that his films eventually gained screening permission? Now we have this treasure of world cinema to love and enjoy.

The film is a lush, Wordsworthian poem about evanescence. What a memorable cinematic canvas!