Mother of Tears Review
The FilmDuring a routine excavation in a cemetery in Viterbo, an elderly priest discovers a nineteenth century coffin bearing the name of Oscar de la Valle and containing urn, sight of which strikes fear into his heart. Sent to the curator of Rome's Museum of Ancient Art, Michael Pierce (Adam James), the urn is intercepted by two reckless employees, Sarah (Asia Argento) and Giselle (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni). Quicker than you can say "Don't read inscriptions on creepy-looking urns aloud", Giselle has been brutally slaughtered and Sarah is on the run from three deformed demons and a screeching monkey. In the catacombs below the streets of Rome, meanwhile, Mater Lacrimarum (Moran Atias), the Mother of Tears, has reawakened after centuries of slumber and, as the last survivor of the Three Mothers, sets about putting into motion the fall of Rome. Armed only with her own burgeoning mystical talents, hand-me-downs from her mother (Daria Nicolodi), a white witch, Sarah realises that she is all that stands in the way of Mater Lacrimarum and the beginning of the Second Age of Witches.
Few series can have taken as long to complete as Dario Argento's Three Mothers trilogy. Beginning with Suspiria in 1977 and Inferno in 1980, the 27-year period of gestation has seemed an unbearably long one at times, not helped by several false starts throughout the 80s and again in the early 00s. At times, many, not unreasonably, suspected that the trilogy would never be completed and that Argento was simply giving his fans false hope each time he announced it as his next project. Others, while still holding on to the hope that the film might one day see the light of day, still tempered their enthusiasm somewhat with the suspicion that Argento would be unable to do the trilogy justice with a satisfying conclusion. Fans' fears were hardly allayed in the wake of Argento's two episodes in the American Masters of Horror series, Jenifer and Pelts, both of which suggested that he had completely lost his golden touch, or when it was announced that the concluding chapter in a trilogy that had been very much a product of Argento's own nightmares would be penned by the writers of such Tobe Hooper-helmed disasters as Crocodile and the remake of The Toolbox Murders. Still, three decades on, Argento has, for better or worse, finally completed the trilogy that has come to define him as a director, and the end result, alternately known as Mother of Tears and (a direct translation of its Italian title) The Third Mother, must now sink or swim based on its own merits.
At the very least, I can comfortably state that Mother of Tears is light years ahead of Argento's contributions to the Masters of Horror series, so much so that it almost feels like the work of a different man. At the same time, though, it doesn't exactly feel like the work of the director of Deep Red or Suspiria either. Time has changed Dario Argento, and sadly not for the better. As such, anyone going into this enterprise expecting a film of the same calibre as the first two instalments in the trilogy is, in my estimation, foolhardy indeed. Beginning in 1990 with his segment of the Two Evil Eyes anthology he directed with George A. Romero, Argento has steadily pared down his baroque stylings to a minimum, replacing the hyperreality that defined his work throughout the 70s and 80s with a more muted, naturalistic style that has opened his more recent offerings up to accusations of blandness. Sometimes, this new approach has worked, most successfully with the semi-neorealist look of The Stendhal Syndrome and even, to an extent, with The Card Player and its ultra-modern naturalism, but on other occasions it has resulted in a sense that something crucial has been removed and not replaced with anything of equal substance. I suspect that it is this, more than anything, that, as the 80s gave way to the 90s, caused many fans to suspect that the ideal window in which to conclude the trilogy had passed.
From the opening shot, a straightforward and flatly lit crawl through a cemetery, Mother of Tears quickly establishes itself as the work of the new Argento rather than the old. In contrast to the more studio-bound Suspiria and Inferno, the director here opts to shoot most of his material in actual locations, often highly public places such as a busy railway station or the graffiti-stained streets of Rome's seedy underbelly. While this does allow him to use some wonderful locations in Rome and Turin, among them the same mansion that Mario Bava used in Kill, Baby... Kill!, in doing so he limits his chances to customise the lighting. Not that he makes much use of such opportunities when they do present themselves: interiors, too, are dominated by earthy, naturalistic lighting, precluding any notion that the film's look is in any way a by-product of extraneous circumstances. Unlike its predecessors, which took place in the land of fairytales and nightmares, this film is clearly situated in the real world, a fact hammered home by a scene in which Udo Kier, playing an eccentric (did you think I was going to say "conventional"?) exorcist, tells Sarah that "There's nothing the matter with [her] head. It's the world that's gone crazy." It doesn't help that most of the thematic and visual references are fairly conventional, with Argento drawing considerably on Renaissance paintings and traditional (Christian) images of paganism and devil-worship. The result is that the film is filled with generic horror iconography, primarily evoking memories of such genre staples as The Omen - Claudio Simonetti's bombastic score, replete with Gregorian chants, is particularly Goldsmith-esque. (It is, however, a decent composition, however stereotypical, and is certainly considerably better than the hideous Dani Filth-voiced heavy metal number that plays over the closing credits.)
Unfortunately, with the emphasis on the real world comes an increase in scale, and I suspect that the film's script was simply too ambitious for its budget. We are supposed to believe that Rome is in complete chaos, and yet, barring a few isolated shots of thugs knocking each other about and attacking cars with baseball bats, the city appears to be largely unaffected by its supposed second fall. By stripping away the candy colours of Suspiria and Inferno, and dispensing with the dream-like atmosphere in favour of the grimy unpleasantness of real life, Argento exposes the limitations of the source material, resulting in the bizarre non-sequiturs and trippy dialogue that characterise this and many of his previous films coming across as merely clumsy and half-baked rather than authentic examples of dream logic. Case in point - take the following exchange:
Sarah: Could I see Father Johannes? It's very important.
Valeria: You'll have to come back tomorrow. He can't see you today.
Sarah: I'm sorry, but that's not possible. Please tell him I won't take much of his time.
Valeria: All right, come in.
Conversations this deranged and more so were perfectly palatable within the otherworldly context of Inferno, and even in more reality-based efforts like Phenomena, but here, against the relentlessly mundane backdrop of Frederic Fasano's slick but bland photography, it just seems silly. It's also the sort of thing that I would have expected having English-speaking co-writers on board would have avoided. The script, credited to Argento, Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch, is definitely the weakest link, and I suspect that this would not have been the case had there been more visual splendour on display to distract from its overly routine plotting. The atmosphere of this film is so different from its predecessors that, when elements from Suspiria and Inferno are explicitly referenced (Suzy Banyon, the Tanzakademie, Varelli's book about the Three Mothers), the effect is jarring.
More problematically, where Argento attempts to tread on new ground, things have a habit of being hokey in the extreme. The worst offender is the film's final shot, which is an absolute howler in the worst possible way, but a close second are a gaggle of witches who jet into Rome looking like rejects from an 80s fashion shoot, and proceed to make their mark on the city by doing nothing worse than demonstrating a lack of social etiquette towards their fellow travellers. The head honcho herself, Mater Lacrimarum, is no better: a silicon-breasted, cackling joke with bad hair and too much make-up who struts around in the nude with her shaved pubic region on display, or wearing the mystical shroud which supposedly grants her power but in reality is nothing more than a dirty red T-shirt embossed with glitter writing. Whatever Argento was attempting to achieve with these witches (a commentary on current fashion trends, perhaps?), it backfires stupendously and threatens to derail the film completely. Likewise, I simply cannot fathom what he was thinking when he squandered the appearance of his ex-partner Daria Nicolodi, who famously co-wrote Suspiria and Inferno and appeared in all virtually all of the films from his classic period, by featuring her as a CGI-augmented mystical spirit who materialises to help Sarah out of various tricky situations (these scenes have won the character the nickname of Obi-Wan Nicolodi in certain circles). Having Asia Argento's real-life mother play the same role in the film adds an interesting biographical twist, but I wish more could have been done with this family reunion. Other attempts at weirdness are more successful, among them a scene in which the "great Belgian thinker" Guglielmo De Witt (a wheelchair-bound Philippe Leroy) proceeds to squirt some sort of perfume at Asia Argento, paralysing her and allowing him to 'read' her latent magical abilities by examining her eyes under a giant green magnifying glass. Moments as delightfully batty as this do, to some extent, begin to make up for the weaker moments. Likewise, there's something brilliantly demented about the inclusion, among Mater Lacrimarum's troupe of followers, of a shrieking monkey, who has a habit of turning up whenever a key death scene is about to take place.
The film also succeeds in being something of a gorehound's pleasure, with Argento supplying some of the most unrestrained acts of violence he has ever committed to film. In that regard, he continues down the same path he trod with his Masters of Horror films, stripping the art out of the violence and resulting in something which feels less like the Argento of old, who somehow managed to make acts of atrocious violence seem beautiful, and more akin to the work of Lucio Fulci late in his career. Sometimes, he overplays his hand completely, lingering on the violence to the extent that the artificiality of Sergio Stivaletti's make-up effects becomes distracting (or, even worse, augments them with less than convincing CGI), but there are some decidedly effective moments here and there. The opening murder, for example, is clearly intended to be a companion piece to the infamous double murder which kicked Suspiria off, and while not of the same standard, it does possess a degree of infectious, no-holds-barred insanity which is hard not to admire - being strangled by your own intestines is easily one of the more unique (albeit unpleasant) ways to leave the world. The most effective death, however, is one of the most underplayed: a mother, possessed by a momentary fit of insanity courtesy of Mater Lacrimarum, takes her baby out of its pram and then hurls it off a bridge into the river below (hitting its head on the way down). She then turns to the camera, tears rolling down her cheeks. It's an incredibly powerful moment, I think, because it's made clear that the mother is fully aware of what she has just done. It's disgusting and yet strangely beautiful at the same time.
Unfortunately, all this gung-ho nastiness comes at a price: a leering sadism imbues much of the violence that is at times tough to palate. "Sordid" does ultimately seem to be the name of the game here, and I suspect this is intentional. There is little beauty in the world in which Mother of Tears is set, just an awful lot of ugly violence and uglier goth make-up. In stark contrast to the first two films in the trilogy, there is a lot of overt sexuality on display, and this on one occasion spills over into the violence. I'm referring to the murder of white witch Marta (Valeria Cavalli, who gives by far the best performance in the film) and her girlfriend Elga (Silvia Rubino), which leaves a sour taste in my mouth because it is one of the few instances in which something Argento has shot comes across as genuinely misogynistic. (For the record, I am not trying to suggest that Argento himself is a misogynist - I would suggest that Deep Red put paid to that notion - but rather that the scene in question, probably undeliberately, comes across as such.) It was the thoughtful, informed treatment of gender issues that elevated the Argento of old above many of his peers. Here, however, it's hard to see this as anything more than a lesbian character being punished for her 'transgressions' by having an enormous phallic object rammed into her nether regions (and out of her mouth). I've been accused of psychoanalysing this scene in overly academic terms; with respect, the image is so blatant that no actual analysis is required. As if to underscore the point, she and her lover are even killed in their bedroom immediately after a bout of sapphic sex that has no relation to the narrative - the oldest cliché in the big book of Dead Lesbian Clichés. You can argue that it's not Argento's place to be socially responsible, and some might also say that the extremely positive portrayal of Marta as a gentle, calming earth mother precludes any notion of her death being a form of punishment, but it's still one of my least favourite moments in any Argento film. (I actually found it harder to stomach than the sight of Asia Argento crawling through what can only be described as a river of diarrhoea later in the film.)
All things considered, Mother of Tears could so easily have been a much worse film than it is. As a conclusion to the Three Mothers trilogy, it's not even remotely satisfying, paying lip service to various plot elements from the previous entries but failing to continue their thematic concerns in anything but the most superficial manner. Taken on its own terms, however, you have a pacey and at times very entertaining romp through various pieces of 70s and 80s horror iconography, bolstered by some stand-out set-pieces and gung-ho violence. It's something of a reflection of how much times have changed that I can honestly say I enjoyed a Dario Argento film more as a fast, silly rollercoaster ride than as a work of art, but I prefer to look upon this as a "glass half full" endeavour. No, it's not Suspiria or Inferno, but nor is it the disaster it could have been.
This UK release by Optimum is the third DVD release of Mother of Tears so far. Beating it to the post by a matter of weeks are an Italian release, which features no English audio or subtitles, and a Russian disc which, while providing an English track, is limited to 2.0 audio and is further compromised by the image being cropped to 1.78:1 from the intended 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The Optimum release, therefore, is comfortably the strongest of the current contenders.
The anamorphic transfer, presenting the film in its correct aspect ratio (the first time Argento has used this screen format since 1993's Trauma), is largely quite eye-pleasing but suffers from some major niggles. The biggest problem is the amount of ringing on display, which is applied consistently throughout the film but is more noticeable in some scenes than in others. It's at its worst during a sequence in which some back-story regarding Oscar de la Valle is filled in via a series of static black and white drawings, in which the ringing plays havoc with the thin pen lines, causing a distracting amount of aliasing. There is also some evidence of grain reduction, which combined with the ringing, robs the image of much of its filmic texture and gives everything a slightly digital look.
Two audio tracks are provided, one 5.1 (excellent) and the other 2.0 (understandably flatter), both English, and, having seen the film in Italian, I can honestly say that it works much better in English. As with most Argento films, it was shot in English, and, in something of a rarity, most of the dialogue spoken appears to be the original on-set recording, or at least is dubbed well enough for it not to be noticeable. The vast majority of the actors, even those for whom English is not their native language, have provided their own voices, which lends an air of authenticity to their speech. A few of the secondary parts are dubbed, and unfortunately these voices appear to have been selected with no regard for actual acting ability. Still, all things considered, this is one of Argento's better English tracks.
There are no subtitles whatsoever. Not impressive, Optimum.
The only extra is a trailer. The Italian release fares somewhat better, offering a 30-minute making-of.
As the culmination of almost three decades' worth of waiting, Mother of Tears fails to live up to the grandeur of its predecessors. At the same time, however, to dismiss it as being without any merit would be unreasonable. Optimum's DVD, while bare-bones, features a good audio-visual presentation and is comfortably the best release of the film currently available.
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