MOTHER OF TEARS
Reviewed by SCOOTER McCRAE
It has been a long time coming (27 years, to be exact), but Dario Argento has finally completed the trilogy begun with SUSPIRIA (1977), which indirectly but thematically continued into INFERNO (1980) and now culminates in MOTHER OF TEARS. And for Argento devotee, the wait was well worth it, as his latest movie is an ambitious melding of the color-drenched visual style that permeated these previous titles and his more recent explorations of the darker side of human sexuality.
(I’m afraid there’s no dotted line separating a few spoilers from the rest of the review ahead, so keep reading at your own risk, as my discussion requires discussing certain key story elements. Sorry!)
The trouble begins almost immediately when a construction crew moving the contents of a church graveyard accidentally unearths a coffin that has an urn containing a book and a talisman chained to it. The urn is sent to a sympathetic curator working at the Museum of Ancient Art in Rome, but before its intended recipient can examine it, museum workers Giselle (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) and Sarah (Asia Argento) intercept it, and their playful curiosity compels them to open it. After poor Giselle cuts her hand while opening the urn and bleeds on it, a whole lotta crazy shit starts happening as the terrible, titular witch Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears) is unleashed upon the world. As the cruel forces of unleashed evil tirelessly pursue Sarah, she discovers through that her mother was a powerful white witch and that she herself may well have inherited her powers, which are only now beginning to latently reveal themselves as she struggles to survive.
In an interesting change of pace from the previous movies, heroine Sarah is the focus of the narrative’s attention. We get to see almost everything from her perspective regarding the fall of Rome and her own maturation as she learns more about the mother she barely knew, the powers she may have inherited and just exactly what is really going on—classic fairy-tale coming-of-age stuff. As the Mother of Tears grows more powerful over the course of the film, Argento depicts the madness that begins to overtake Rome’s citizens in tiny vignettes instead of displays of large-scale mayhem. Whether or not this was a budgetary decision, seeing a woman kiss her baby and then toss it off a bridge is a much more powerful and unsettling image than generic panicked-crowd setpieces. These are the seeds of evil being planted and taking root before flowering into full, apocalyptic bloom, so it feels right to see tiny spotlights on them, since they surround Sara and impact the periphery of her world.
Another highlight for longtime fans is the reuniting of the Argento family in a single movie, as Asia’s real-life mom Daria Nicolodi—especially resonant to this series, as she co-wrote SUSPIRIA—plays the ghost of Sarah’s mother Elisa, who is revealed to her daughter for the first time in a magical moment worthy of that film. As effective as this scene is, Argento does overdo this plot point a bit by turning Elisa into something resembling a distaff Obi-Wan Kenobi, but thankfully, her character isn’t on screen long enough to become too distracting.
As much as Argento’s recent attempts to move in a different direction—one that does not embrace the techniques of his past, but attempts new forms of storytelling and distinct thematic concerns—have been welcome, there’s something very satisfying about seeing an angry monkey chasing a barefoot Sarah through a museum as another woman has her mouth widened to twice normal size with a strange device and is then strangled with her own guts. These don’t feel like images created by someone who has found their peace in old age (Argento is now 67), but the work of an artist still driven by over-the-top violent imagery that is vividly worth exploring.
As startling as some of the mayhem is, there are also moments of simple beauty in his presentation of magical and occult moments. It’s pretty thrilling when Sarah makes herself invisible for the first time while being pursued in a bookstore as a policeman literally tries to sniff her out while standing in her (invisible to him, but not us) face. There’s also a visit to a modern-day alchemist which strikes just the right tone of mysterious forces conjoined with ancient sciences, as the old man sprays her with paralyzing mist and then reads the details of her journey by looking at the squiggles moving across her eyes through a large magnifying lens (which makes him appear to be reading a classic crystal ball).
Showcased as cackling Gothic Eurotrash women wearing far too much makeup, the witches who invade Rome are lively creations, a bunch of annoying punks drunk on their own growing abilities. But the only real power they seem to have is annoyance, and it’s a nice, unexpected twist to present them this way, as opposed to trying to make them threatening—which usually comes across as risible anyway, so why not make them figures of humor in the first place? When they do actually begin to become dangerous, that’s when things get interesting. A sequence where a particularly nasty sorceress (Jun Ichikawa) pursues Sara through a train is invigorating and has a nice payoff.
While SUSPIRIA and INFERNO were only tangentially linked by being set in locations designed by an architect who had created dwellings for each of the Three Mothers (themselves based on the writings of Thomas De Quincey), TEARS is the first of the three movies to actually link everything together by referencing characters and incidents from its predecessors. Depending on how much you’ve enjoyed the ambiguity of it all until now, it’s strangely thrilling to hear Udo Kier as a priest (who has apparently seen the other movies) name names and fill Sarah in on some of the more important information. More amusing still is seeing him as a priest who complains about the growing number of exorcisms he’s been asked to perform lately, after playing the voice of scientific reason who dismisses the occult world in SUSPIRIA.
The self-referential shout-outs to Argento’s past oeuvre don’t stop there, as literally dozens of little visual reminders pop up throughout–some seemingly at random, as when Sarah falls into a pool of decomposing bodies and maggots right out of PHENOMENA. But other bits, like Sarah being driven around Rome in a cab and especially when she’s given a copy of E. Varelli’s book THE THREE MOTHERS to look at (accompanied by a voiceover which, sadly, sounds nothing like the one used for INFERNO), are neat touchstones for savvy viewers.
Technically, TEARS is beautiful to look at, as Walter Fasano’s cinematography luxuriates in robust colors during most of the night scenes and creamy soft light in the daytime interiors—the finest Argento-film cinematography since Ronnie Taylor’s excellent work on OPERA. While the color scheme rarely reaches the hue-soaked delirium of SUSPIRIA, it stands on its own as a reminder that a whole lot of ugly imagery can reside in a beautiful-looking frame. The camerawork is more fluid, animated and playful than it has been for a couple of Argento’s movies, and it serves his purposes well, creating the feeling that the principals are surrounded by something greater than it appears on the surface. “Magic is all around us,” as the quote goes from SUSPIRIA, here supplemented by the druggy riddle “What you see does not exist. What you cannot see is truth.”
Longtime Argento collaborator Claudio Simonetti contributes another hit-and-miss score that works more often than not. The problem this time is that often, the music is far more bombastic or active than is necessary for what’s happening on screen—although to give credit where it’s due, his pulling out of the stops for the climax does work quite well. But it’s in the quieter moments where Simonetti really shines, and works with the images to create something rather special. Just to put it all in perspective, I’ve even come to enjoy the absolutely ridiculous end-title song on its own terms.
MOTHER OF TEARS is cruel and violent in a way unseen since OPERA (and this film is even nastier) or STENDHAL SYNDROME (where the violence was as much psychological as physical). The creatures who do all the poking, flaying and ripping of ripe flesh are so sexually depraved in the level of unhinged, sadistic glee with which they attack that the murders are truly sickening—unpleasant moments which demonstrate that Argento hasn’t lost sight of how to make an audience wince in discomfort. These moments are brief and not dwelt upon, but so visceral that just a flash of the image is all that’s needed to convey the pain and horror. And just as with TENEBRAE, an Argento film is no place to be if you’re a lesbian who wants to live past the end credits…
All three films in this trilogy have strong starts and classic setpieces scattered along the way, but suffer from endings that don’t quite deliver as much energy as what has come before, and often feel like afterthoughts—as if they just kinda ran out of film. MOTHER OF TEARS is no exception, but it definitely has a stronger sense of purpose and a more linear focus on its climax than INFERNO (whose ending is its biggest stumbling block) or even SUSPIRIA with its fiery closing conflagration. The final shot seems to have garnered a large share of critical detractors, but you can count me among the few who believe it’s quite beautiful, in the same way a children’s-book diorama or the FX-created compositions of Russian master fantasy filmmaker Alexander Ptushko are gorgeous in their overt theatricality, without feeling self-conscious toward their own artificiality.
Speaking of which, many of the worst reviews I’ve seen for TEARS are from those whom I’d like to think should know better: Argento fans. Look, it’s one thing to not like a movie by a favorite director (I just had that sad experience with George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD), but to declare this one as a piece of garbage that takes the entire trilogy down an entire notch is just plain stupid—and, frankly, indicates that whoever would say such a thing probably has no understanding of what makes something an Argento film in the first place. Because if risible dialogue, flat performances, characters’ absolutely illogical reactions to bizarre situations and a dreamlike plot pinballing from one nonsensical scenario to the next makes this a terrible film, I’d like the people leveling these accusations to point out any work by the director that is lacking these elements, which are so much a part of the language that makes an Argento film uniquely his own.
Does anyone really think at this point, after nearly 40 years of making movies, Argento doesn’t know what he’s doing? Only someone who simply doesn’t understand the logistics of making movies, and what it means for an artist to change and develop yet still have identifiable fingerprints on his creation, would think such a thing. That lack of understanding is especially worrisome with what looks like an inevitable SUSPIRIA remake lurking on the horizon, and based on the comments of the latest hack poised to push that wobbly-wheeled cart into oblivion, nobody involved with the endeavor seems to have a clue as to what made that film work either.
I’ll go so far as to say that MOTHER OF TEARS is a great movie, and well worth the wait. Does it have flaws? Oh yeah, but so do TENEBRAE, PHENOMENA, SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, and they’re now all part of the accepted canon of classic Argento cinema. So howzabout everyone stop waiting 10 years to finally start liking an Argento film (the same people who say, “I always liked it all along, really”) and just accept the problems alongside the flashes of greatness that mark this as a very satisfying return to form by one of the genre’s greatest practitioners of cathartic, candy-colored nightmares?