LFF 2018: Journey to a Mother’s Room Review
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Throughout Journey to a Mother’s Room [Viaje al cuarto de una madre, 2018], we rarely venture outside the apartment that its two central characters call home, watching as they go about their daily routines in this claustrophobic yet cosy setting. Eating on the sofa, warming themselves by the gas fire, watching the next episode of a TV series: Leonor (Anna Castillo) and her mother Estrella (Lola Dueñas) enjoy each other’s company in their small apartment, so comfortable with living together that they even keep their bedroom doors open at night so they know the other is there. It is these little moments of realism that give Celia Rico Clavellino’s beautiful Spanish drama a personal touch that makes it standout immediately, and which ensures the emotional tale at its centre resonates with us long after it's finished.
While the outside world is kept just out of frame (the early exceptions being a look at Leonor’s new workplace and a club she visits), it is still a place that Leonor longs to escape to. She dreams of leaving their stuffy apartment to travel the world, her sights set on London where she wants to go to work and learn English. But there is something keeping her at home – an unspoken incident that both her and her mother are still reeling from. Without ever explicitly saying what has happened, Clavellino instead scatters little moments throughout that hint at the change they are trying to cope with, as well as the grief that pervades their daily lives. Objects serve as sudden and stark reminders of what they’ve lost, the memories they stir in both of them never spoken of, but so obvious to us by their silent, heartfelt reactions. It is this delicate handling of such a big theme – one which you can imagine other films using melodrama to explain – that makes Journey’s poignancy hit us that much more, particularly felt in a scene when Leonor and her mother find a box with an old pair of shoes, their eagerness to hide it again speaking huge volumes.
With minimalist camerawork and her subtle yet confident direction, Clavellino is able to depict the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of her story in a way that feels wholly realistic, her lightness of touch allowing us to become a part of Leonor and Estrella’s world. Those little snapshots of quiet home life are equally absorbing, the way Clavellino lets them play out often making it seem as if we are watching a real family. However it is the central performances from Anna Castillo and Lola Dueñas that particularly heighten the realism of Clavellino’s writing and direction, their beautifully restrained portrayals and onscreen chemistry giving more impact to Leonor and her mother’s relationship, as well as the overall narrative. When their bond does start to slowly change in new and unexpected ways, it is almost heart-wrenching, each of them trying to cope with the different paths they suddenly find themselves on, while trying to keep their relationship as strong as it always has been.
The silence in these moments is almost deafening, Clavellino often adding an ominous air to the once comfortable apartment as we follow Estrella trying to adapt to her new situation, with shadows in rooms and unexplained noises that she never noticed before. The fact that this is done with no melodrama is again what makes it so powerful, with one particularly disastrous incident handled in such a low-key way that you almost forget it happens. While the slow build-up in Clavellino’s tale keeps us gripped, in spite of those long silences, it is Dueñas’ stunning performance that truly adds to this part of the story, her quiet portrayal of a mother suddenly lost incredibly moving to see. So compelling is Dueñas’ performance that we become fully invested in Estrella’s journey, watching as she gradually opens herself up to new possibilities in her life, whether that be a new coffee maker, or something much more personal.
Without ever losing the same sense of poignancy felt at the start of her film, Clavellino concludes Journey in a way that brings her story full circle, her suggestion at a hopeful outcome for both Leonor and her mother giving the film a surprisingly uplifting ending. The comfy apartment setting and familiar moments of everyday life lend her film a palpable realism, Clavellino’s beautiful observations allowing her to deal with those complex themes of grief and change in a way that gives them more emotional clout. Yet it is the mother-daughter relationship that is ultimately the powerful heart of the film, Clavellino’s perfect characterisation and Castillo and Dueñas’ performances adding a layer of naturalness that is wonderfully profound and captivating, and which makes the journey of both characters incredibly moving to watch.