Mother and Son Review
Another of Alexander Sokurov’s visual tone poems, the first in a proposed trilogy of films about family bonds, Mother and Son relies heavily on mood, expressionistic imagery and the sounds of nature to describe the relationship between a young man and his sick mother. There is little that is revealed about the characters, their bonds or their history together through their brief conversations, talking about shared dreams and looking through old letters from forgotten friends, and there is little that happens between them over the course of the brief but very slow moving film. Taking his mother for walks in the neighbouring countryside however, the woman carried by her son as she is too ill to walk herself, the film manages to express the nature of the bond between them through the autumnal landscape, through footsteps on leaves, through the wind in the trees, running water, the whistling of birds and the ominous rumbling of thunder, the elemental forces all combining with the heavy gasping breathing of the dying woman.
The conversations between this specific mother and son do however exlpore the nature of mother/son relationships in general. The mother here would seem to have been a teacher by occupation, her son clearly relying on her for instruction, for guidance and protection as a child, and as a young man now her approval still counts. The roles at this stage in their relationship have been somewhat reversed, the son carrying his mother like she were a child, feeding her, protecting her, showing her the world outside. The carrying of his mother can also be taken figuratively - as the young man goes through life he will always carry a part of his mother within. And eventually, the time will come when he too will perhaps have to suffer in the same way as he gets older.
Utterly simple, yet profoundly meaningful and visually beautiful – every frame of it composed with the precision of a painter - all this and much more besides is expressed in hazy, manipulated images, through colour, light, shadow, sound and music. It’s perhaps the Sokurov film that most clearly evokes the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, a mentor to the Russian director. The tone that the film strives to create is intended to resonate, to evoke memory and emotions within the viewer rather than express them on the screen as an example of a specific or typical mother/son relationship. Consequently, Mother and Son, much more so than its follow-up Father and Son, remains universal, yet personal for each and every viewer.
Mother and Son is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Transfers of Alexander Sokurov’s films to DVD have always been problematic, but it has to be said that this release of Mother and Son is not one of the best by any means. It’s non-anamorphic, letterboxed strangely at a ratio of about 1.55:1 rather than the correct 1.66:1. The image is slightly grainy and hazy, as it generally tends to be in Sokurov films, but looks softer than it should here, as if it comes from an analogue source - and certainly not a high-definition one – showing horizontal tracking lines and distorting the tones with cross colouration. Marks and scratches are certainly evident, certain scenes showing heavy speckling of black dustspots. Perhaps the most distracting elements however are the macro-blocking artefacts which cause the image to throb and pulsate throughout. The sheer beauty of the cinematography and the intentions of the manipulated colours and skewed perspectives that the director uses to evoke mood can certainly still be appreciated, but I’m sure this is far from how good the film ought to look.
Evidently the sound element is a very important part of the film, and the original audio track, presented here in Dolby Digital 2.0, is reasonably effective, carrying the full range of the ambient sounds, but there is some analogue hiss in the backgrounds and it could certainly be clearer.
English subtitles are included in a clear white font. Subtitles often cause problems on the delicate composition of Sokurov’s films and can obscure figures in the foreground, but there’s really not a great deal one can do about this. There is not a great deal of dialogue in the film and certainly little that is explanatory, and fortunately the subtitles are optional, so you can remove them if required.
Although the main feature only lasts 68 minutes, you can’t say you’ve been short-changed with this release, since also included is another Sokurov film A Humble Life, which at 76 minutes is actually longer than Mother and Son. Reverentially filming a frail, old Japanese lady who sews silk kimonos for a living, oh-so-slowly going about her daily work and reading poetry in a simple wooden house with superimposed rolling mists and a plaintive piano score, the film is intermittently beautiful and fascinating – some scenes prefiguring the director’s work on his film about Hirohito, The Sun (2005), but I’m not convinced that Sokurov gets to the heart of whatever it is he is trying to capture here. It’s a humble life certainly, but it shouldn’t take 76 minutes to show that. The sepia qualities and the simplicity of the subject and their surroundings however give an impression of the timeless nature of an ancient profession. For some viewers sitting through the duration of the documentary there may also be an impression of time seeming to stand still. The video quality is much the same as the feature, though filmed on Digital Video, it looks possibly slightly better. Macro-blocking problems however are again the main problem with the image flickering throughout.
Alexander Sokurov is an experimental avant-garde director and some of his work will consequently resonate with some viewers and not with others. He’s not for everyone, but there are enough examples of his work out there on DVD for you to know already whether Mother and Son is likely to appeal to you or not. That said, Moloch, The Sun, Father and Son and particularly Russian Ark can all fairly test any viewer, whereas Mother and Son is perhaps more accessible than most of his work, its length brief and concise, its theme and intent much more clearly defined and simply presented, its beauty clearly evident in every frame. It is unfortunately not the best transfer of Sokurov’s work out there on DVD, but the essential strengths of the film and the director’s technique are not greatly compromised.