Beyond the Chick Flick

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The best director of actresses since Bergman, Rodrigo García turns in a masterpiece

By Armond White

When a filmmaker does everything right, as in Rodrigo García’s Mother and Child, you may be watching a masterpiece. Like his previous films (Ten Tiny Love Stories, Nine Lives), director-writer García focuses on emotional details, what used to be called character studies, as opposed to conventional storytelling. Mother and Child shifts from Lucy (Kerry Washington), a romantic young married woman seeking to adopt a baby, to Karen (Annette Bening), a bitter single woman with an ailing mother, then to an aggressive career woman, Elizabeth (Naomi Watts).

Their different temperaments illuminate each other. Lucy’s energy contrasts Karen’s dryness and both are elucidated by Elizabeth’s isolation. The women don’t know each other, but García drafts an interconnecting structure with precise narrative logic and spiritual resonance. Drama comes from the commonalities García reveals about womanhood, parenthood, childhood. His big picture is composed of small, resonant details. Because the movie is always so intimate, the epic social vision that results is astonishing.

Annette Bening in Mother and Child.

The title Mother and Child suggests a Renaissance art genre—unexpected in a movie about contemporary alienation, where the three lead characters display a non-religious puzzlement about this unsatisfying world. Yet, an appreciably Catholic sense of suffering and fulfillment holds these disparate lives together. García, grandson of novelist Gabriel García Marquez, is a contemporary rarity: No magical realist, he’s a humanist in an era that customarily overlooks the qualities of being human. So many recent movies present vagrant people (as in the overrated Frozen River, they seem dropped out of the sky into contrived topical misery) but García’s characters, who always search for and reflect their origins, are looking for roots that are deeper than blood. Then he allows you to discover that link emotionally.

Moviegoers who mistake this insight for sentimentality may also be deceived by García’s lucid technique: his means of getting close to characters even when using wideshots; and his close-ups that are not ashamed to show flickering surprise or a steady, concentrated gaze. Every character offers such revelations: as when Lucy reacts to an adoption denial, pouring out an anguish older than the moment of her rejection; Karen seeing herself in a secretive child she’s just scolded; and Elizabeth watching the back of a young girl (a teenage version of herself), yet desperate not to be recognized. Such moments prove García the best director of actresses since Ingmar Bergman. Each of these familiar performers hits a new peak. García’s art is committed to the emotional openness of the feminine disposition, that expressive lack of reserve that men are socialized to maintain.

García and cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet shoot images to be visually and viscerally affecting: When Elizabeth seduces a married man (Mark Blucas) or wakes up next to her law office boss (Samuel L. Jackson), scenes are set at canted angles. Spaces are charged Antonioni-style. Even Elizabeth’s B&W apartment and severe clothing convey her personal anxieties. García’s formal skill continues in plot ellipses (hidden undergarments, a chance encounter) that resonate in the later developments. These subtle hints convey eccentric vulnerability and longing, powerfully portrayed. Note how the post-romantic meeting between Karen and an old beau (David Morse) registers as a passing moment until an instinctual realization by Elizabeth, observable from the similarity of her complexion to Morse’s, brings that reunion scene back with an almost subconscious jolt.

The breadth of human experiences in Mother and Child depicts a social panorama more honestly than most other movies. García’s sensitivity to race, class and gender informs everything. Elpidia Carrillo (so strong in Nine Lives) plays a peripheral part as a Latino maid, yet looms large. This is not a liberal tearjerker but a heightened vision of common concerns that ought to shake-up every other American movie you see from now. Reflecting on our condition, it achieves the spiritual-political profundity of Frank Borzage’s China Doll, another transcendent women’s picture. In a summary scene, a pregnant woman is told: “A person inside another person. It’s like science fiction.” It’s also García’s poetic mastery.

Mother and Child
Directed by Rodrigo García
Runtime: 125 min.

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