Monday, December 15, 2008

MOTHER OF TEARS (2007) d. Dario Argento

Reviewed by Rick Trottier and Mark Nelson

Once upon a time in the land of literature, series and especially trilogies became all the rage and dominated the fantasy and science fiction genre landscape. While their sway has become diminished to a small degree over the years, trilogies and their relations have gained a sizable dominion in the realm of motion pictures. What is especially interesting about that fact is that creating a cinematic series is not always an easy task. Unless you have the capital and control to order all things as you wish (George Lucas and his Star Wars prequel trilogy) or are riding the wave of popularity and must strike while the iron is hot (the Wachowski brothers and their Matrix trilogy), it is sometimes a challenge to return to a story you’ve started. Such was the case with director/writer/producer Dario Argento, who burst upon the film scene in the late 1960s with BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and then made a name for himself with subsequent giallos like CAT ‘O NINE TAILS and DEEP RED. By 1977, Dario Argento chose to leave the fertile cinematic soil of giallos and strike out into supernatural territory with his well-received and highly regarded SUSPIRIA. While not originally intended to be part of a trilogy, SUSPIRIA was the wellspring and first installment of what has now become The Three Mothers series of films. The second episode in the saga, INFERNO, followed in 1980, but after that Dario Argento turned to other projects throughout the 1980s, 1990s and well into the 2000s, leaving the trilogy incomplete. For those fans of The Three Mothers films, MOTHER OF TEARS (La Terza Madre) finally completes the circle and brings the story of Black Magic and Evil Incarnate to a close.

MOTHER OF TEARS is the story of Sarah Mandy, an employee of the Museum of Ancient Art in Rome, who stumbles into a supernatural incident involving artifacts extracted from an urn which had been recently exhumed from a Roman cemetery. The three statues, a knife and a tunic are the key to unleashing the power of The Mother of Tears, the third witch left on Earth from the original group including The Mother of Sighs and The Mother of Pain. Unknowingly, Sarah’s co-worker breaks the seal containing the Evil restrained within the urn, allowing the Mother of Tears to return. Her legendary cruelty and attraction are soon seen throughout the countryside as lawlessness, brutality and villainy erupts and then escalates. Sarah must come to grips with the insanity of what is happening all around her, an unresolved past filled with secrets and lies and the minions of the Mother of Tears who know that she holds the key to the final ascendancy of Evil on Earth.

Just as many of the lovers of the original Star Wars movies had problems with the updating of that story, so too is it likely that some of the devotees of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO may not entirely enjoy MOTHER OF TEARS, but there is actually a lot to like about this film. While MOTHER OF TEARS may not be bathed in candy-coated colors like the first two parts of the trilogy and it lacks the ethereally glamorous beauty and dreamlike music of its counterparts, it is still a very appealing film. Dario still has a penchant for finding location spots rich in fascinating architecture, dazzling exterior and interior d├ęcor and then filming them from exotic angles and in blazes of color and dappled shadow. All through MOTHER OF TEARS, an astute Argento fan can revel in the splendor of glorious Italian churches, palazzos, streets and cityscapes, while once indoors we are inundated with richly appointed corridors, staircases and chambers. While not splashing color with as much intensity as he once did, there are still plenty of hues and shades to delight the eye, including many that pay homage to the splendor of the female form, something that was not as common in earlier Argento films except TENEBRE and OPERA, but has become fairly common since SLEEPLESS and DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK. There was even a stretch when the legend of La Terza Madre was told that utilized animation that looked like medieval wood engravings. This use of mixed media helped to diverse the look of the film, something not used in the early segments of the trilogy. MOTHER OF TEARS is a delight to the eye, but visual intensity is not the only measure of a film’s success.

The story of MOTHER OF TEARS is a little uneven and it has its weaknesses, but there is much that can impress as well. The narrative takes its time and winds its way patiently through its 100 minute runtime, albeit a little inconsistently paced at times, but that is better than rushing the development of suspense, menace and atmosphere. All three of these essential components are in evidence and while not as dramatically stitched into the fabric of the film as they were in SUSPIRIA and to a lesser degree in INFERNO, they are there none-the-less. What is richly composed is the sense of supernatural malevolence that permeates the framework of Roman society and the bloodthirsty impact it has on the lives of the characters and those around them. Stippled throughout MOTHER OF TEARS is a liberal dose of gore, depravity and shocking violence. For those with a squeamish or delicate nature, it might be a good idea to shut your eyes when the slashing, stabbing and sinister celebrations start. Certainly this is no BLOODFEAST or CANNIBAL FEROX, and all of the gore/debauchery is done with Dario’s customary stylishness and sex appeal, but it is more intense than the usual Argento fare, but what one might expect from the crescendo of The Three Mothers story. In addition to the supernatural and sadistic elements, the plot of MOTHER OF TEARS is twined well with the mythos of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, referencing them appropriately and respectfully without overdoing it. There is even some fine “cat & mouse” suspense that is reminiscent of Dario’s earliest giallos. However, there are some plot devices that do not work as well and detract from the overall narrative integrity. The “witchy minions” of The Mother of Tears do not come across as threatening at all, rather they look as if they had just come out of a Godsmack concert and their cackling voices and punk harpy looks came across as silly rather than sinister. The plot line about Sarah’s mother made sense and was well used at times, but having a ghostly Daria Nicolodi doing her best to aid her daughter ala Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker was intensely foolish. Discovering mental and spiritual gifts woven into her heart and mind during their days together would have worked so much better. At least one story component helped to make up for the prior mentioned failings and that was the addition of an Evil Monkey. It is believed by some of us that a monkey will always make a film better, and watching this wicked primate calling his ghastly troops to battle warmed my simian-loving heart.

One of the greatest weaknesses of MOTHER OF TEARS is its very unpredictable levels of acting quality. While Adam James (Michael Pierce) and Cristian Solimeno (Detective Enzo Machi) were passable, and Valeria Cavalli (Marta Colussi) was actually the best of the bunch, most of the acting was overdone, poorly timed or wooden. Asia Argento (Sarah Mandy) may be a lovely woman with an impressive figure and a famous father who doesn’t seem to mind shooting his daughter naked, but her acting skills have never been her hallmark. When she is screaming for “Mommy” during one powerful scene, the emotional brakes are slammed to the floor and the subsequent impact of that scene is far less than it could have and should have been. It is difficult to tell whether the supremely sexy and sensual Moran Atias (Mater Lachrymarum aka the Mother of Tears) is the problem or the woman who did the voice-over dubbing or both, but her scenes were a true dichotomy as your eye was immediately drawn to her splendid figure so very well displayed, but the delivery of her lines left a lot to be desired. At least MOTHER OF TEARS had the presence of Udo Kier (Father Johannes) for a brief but deeply enjoyable spell. Udo Kier’s acting style may be reminiscent of Steve Railsback for its unbridled intensity and raw power and for some it may be a bit too much, but like a monkey he almost always makes a film better and such is the case here.

As has been typical of several recent Argento releases, there is a pretty deep and very rewarding bonus features menu on this disc. The first offering is a 33 minute “Making of The Mother of Tears” featurette, which is a mix of behind the scenes footage and interviews. It is very much worth your time, especially if you are a follower of Dario Argento’s work. Next is an 8 minute “Conversation with Dario Argento” which is not as in-depth but still of interest. Finally, there are the U.S. trailer and the Italian teaser, which on their own are not terribly fascinating but when contrasted and compared, they are very interesting. It is nice to see that Dario Argento discs still keep the fans in mind when they are released here in the United States.

During the dark days of the 1990s when Dario Argento’s films were not as strong as they had once been and his star seemed on the decline, the completion of The Three Mothers story seemed highly unlikely, if not an impossibility. While not the opus that was SUSPIRIA, MOTHER OF TEARS comes to us 30 years later after much water has flowed beneath Dario’s bridge. After the ending of his marriage, the growth of his daughter and the immense changes in Italian politics and culture and tastes in general and in film making in particular, no one is going to be able to top or even approach one of the seminal motion pictures of their lives. MOTHER OF TEARS may not be SUSPIRIA, but it may be a better film than INFERNO. While not looking as good, it probably has a better story and is equally if not better acted. MOTHER OF TEARS can take its rightful place on the shelf next to its two cinematic cam padres and while no film can please everyone, I for one am glad that the trilogy is finished and am not left hanging, wondering what path it might have taken.

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