“Sweater: Garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly” – Ambrose Bierce
The role of a “mother” has been portrayed many times in the history of cinema and usually in extremely different ways. However, there is a common theme that I feel runs through the true greats of those films and that is the leitmotif of sacrifice. There is no act of innate nature more inevitable than that of a mothers need to sacrifice herself for her children.
I’m going to start with a virtually unknown film from the Cultural Revolution era of Chinese cinema.
“New Year’s Sacrifice” is almost like a Mizoguchi – Satyajit Ray hybrid. It actually shares similar scenes with Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952), the final scene is particular alike (For the risk of spoilers, you’ll have to trust me on this one).
The film was quite obviously made to highlight concerns Maoism had with religion and superstition. However, politics aside the film is a touching drama about a relatively young widow that goes through an array of negative voyages, all due to the society of the times and the fear of bad omens that accompanied certain women.
The woman is forced to re-marry for the financial gain of her in-laws, reluctant at first she eventually falls in love with him and they have a baby boy together. Unfortunately due to illness her husband struggles to pay their bills and eventually dies, to make the situation worse her son is sent out to sell nuts and is tragically killed by wolves.
After the death of her son she begins to descend into a psychological frame of mind that worsens through time. She runs the story over and over again about how “stupid” she was to order her son to sell nuts in an area where wolves are known to wonder. The series of events leading to her son’s death consume her; she repeats the story over and over to acquaintances and strangers. This ultimately leads to people becoming irritated by her constantly going over her story and she soon becomes unable to go about her work properly. The end of the film sees her jobless and excluded from society, lost in her own regret and pain.
The film brings up the notion that when a woman has a child he/she becomes both their vocation and their destiny. If the child is taken away from them, so is their purpose.
Frederick Wiseman is usually known for his lyrically dramatic documentaries that usually focus on a more observational format (no narrations or interviews). His camera often peers in and resists interacting with the world he is capturing.
“The Last Letter”, is one of the few narrative films Wiseman has directed (I’m being loose with the “Narrative” label) it consists of a Ukrainian woman who is stuck in a ghetto that has been taken over by Nazi’s during WW2. The mother reads out her last letter to her son (who is safe outside of enemy lines) before she is killed. The letter draws on her life experiences, her preservation of dignity and compassions leading up to her inevitable end.
Despite consisting of only one actress, in one dark room, reading from a letter, a profound impression is revealed. An impression of the comfort a mother consumes when knowing her children are well, a comfort so overwhelming it compensates the misery of her own fate.
This film transcends a woman’s instinctive need to nurture and care for her own children and expands it to the occasional ability to emotionally adopt those feelings for others. Before Richard Dawkins’ best seller “The Selfish gene” demonstrated evolutionary altruism, “Twenty-Four Eyes” got there first.
Directed by Japanese golden era great Keisuke Kinoshita, the film follows Oishi (played by the late Hideko Takamine) a schoolteacher who teaches a first grade class and observes their relationship from 1928 to 1946. The children grow up, some experience domestic problems, some die in the war and even Oishi experiences personal loss.
This is the type of film even my mother enjoyed (someone who doesn’t have the attention for films with subtitles alone) and this could explain it winning the 1955 Golden Globe for best foreign film, beating Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).
The film is a celebration of the innate nature of maternal affection and how much a mother invests emotionally in her children. The problem with anything that requires this level of emotional investment is, the happy times being ecstasy and the sad times being torture, a dichotomy with no middle ground.
Ozu like most of the Japanese filmmakers from the 1930s-60s made many films about mothers and fathers (especially widows), but what makes this film stand out to me is it focuses on a characteristic many mothers demonstrate when it comes to the expectations of their children. A mother will give up everything to help her child get the most out of their lives, but even when the child does not appreciate it, in all her disappointments she carries on.
The film is separated into two parts; the first is the mother and her son as a young boy and the second is the aged mother who’s now grown up son is working in the city. After spending years giving up everything and working herself ill to fund her sons city life, she plans to visit him for the first time in many years.
When she arrives she is shocked to find he has married a woman and had a child without informing her. He has also grown up to be a loafer who has given up on his ambitions, washing away all the money his mother worked for. Upset and dazed that not only has she missed two important events in a mother’s life (her child’s wedding and the birth of her first grandchild) but all her gruesome efforts have neither been appreciated nor utilised by her son.
Although more sentimental than Ozu’s other work, it is his best portrayal of a mother/son relationship and it is possibly the closest film that represented his own home life (Ozu lived with his mother until she died and he never married).
An almost real time film about Jeanne Dielman and her day to day activates. She is a single mother that devotes herself to cooking, cleaning and mothering. Jeanne also prostitutes herself out to a male client for her and her son’s maintenance.
In Akerman’s usual way, there is no melodrama, no sentimentalism and no distraction to what is being observed. The static wide shots result in Jeanne and her house blending into each other, her routines and utensils become part of who she is.
Akerman’s unique cinematic take on the common theme of “parenthood versus prostitution”, is immortalised by its quiet and monotone perspective. It shows how almost anything can ritualised or lost in routine, no matter how degrading it may be.
Her entertaining of clients appears just as ordinary as when she sends her child to school, the contrast has faded and they have merged into one ritual.
I think sometimes we overlook the effect routine can have on our lives; it drains emotions of its substance. What was once painful can almost become tolerable and what was once meaningful can become numb. But how long can it last?
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is one of the most challenging and heart-breaking films about the occasional repercussions that arise from the expectations of womanhood.
It could be said The Goddess (1934) is not only the best film about motherhood, not only the best Chinese film, but possibly one of the all-time great masterpieces.
Ruan Lingyu was a mega star of Chinese cinema during the 1930s and even though she died at 24 she is still considered to be the most iconic actress of Chinese cinema.
Lingyu plays a prostitute working on the Shanghai streets in order to support her young child. Unlike Jeanne Dielman The film depicts a contrast of Ruan’s character; the seductive prostitute of the night and the loving mother of the day. Soon her working as a prostitute begins to affect her infant son’s future and she must make the ultimate sacrifice any mother can make for the good of her child, letting them go.
The film is a moving and unsentimental look at the double edged sword motherhood can sometimes hand you. Lingyu does not even need to act; her face alone depicts a deep sadness that echoed her tragic personal life. Poetic; romantic, realistic and tragic.