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GOCRITIC! Karlovy Vary 2019

GoCritic! Feature: Mothers and fathers of Karlovy Vary

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- As The Father wins this year’s Crystal Globe, we look at the representation of mothers on screen

GoCritic! Feature: Mothers and fathers of Karlovy Vary
Marta Bjelica in Mamonga

Mother! This mysterious creature, so admired and loved by world’s religions and societies, yet continuously misrepresented, misunderstood and shoved aside in family dramas. After this year’s Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary went to Bulgarian-Greek co-production The Father [+see also:
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, I took a closer look to the dad's female counterpart and her portrayal at the Czech resort jamboree this year.

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A family drama infused with elements of deadpan humour, The Father (strong work by writer-directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov) follows a father-son duo failing to communicate after a sudden death of their wife/mother. The film, while never losing its slightly comic touch, plays with difficult themes of marriage, family, gender (in)equality and fatherhood – all of which turn sour when not properly cared-for, rather like quinces (a recurrent metaphor in the film) which aren’t made into jam in time.

The reason behind the resentful father-son dynamic soon crystallises in a powerful scene where emotionally closed-off Pavel (Ivan Barnev), fed up with his father’s inconsolable grief, loses his temper. Why mourn her now, when he was so self-centred, career-oriented before?

Refusing to be of any help after Pavel was born, the mother – an omnipresent, yet invisible essence of the film, who we only hear through an old telephone voice-message – had to give up her career soon after giving birth, thus making the necessary sacrifice of being a housewife and parent. This was all to aid her inattentive, unsympathetic husband in his artistic endeavours as a painter. He was supposedly an anti-regime dissident, but nevertheless used his Communist Party connections whenever they could bring him personal gain.

While the mother in The Father never actually appears, there is a common thread that connects her with other mothers gracing this year’s screens of Karlovy Vary – they all seem to be passive, insecure, depressed and traumatised women. The films differ in subject-matter, tonality and genre, but are united by the women’s quietness, blandness and submissiveness. In each case, this is the result of their society’s ubiquitous patriarchal structures, often of a religious nature. These are belief-systems created by men, often founded upon the idea of woman’s eternal sinfulness and her infinite need for redemption.

Riley Keough in The Lodge

This is what drives the newest chiller by Austrian writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy), The Lodge [+see also:
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. It revolves around two mother figures – or, to be precise, a biological mother and soon-to-be-a-stepmother. Laura (a short but memorable appearance by Alicia Silverstone) is a deeply depressed, devout Catholic, who puts a bullet in her head after learning about her ex-husband’s plan to marry his new girlfriend. Grace (Riley Keough), her supposed "successor," is sole survivor of an evangelical death cult who now secretly self-medicates to deal with her childhood trauma.

Both women have been hurt by men in their life: Laura by the husband who left her for a younger woman, Grace first by the infamous cult leader and now future stepson, who vindictively torments her in the hope of getting revenge for his mother’s suicide. During all the horror taking place in the mysterious, eponymous lodge, a framed picture of the Virgin Mary – a religious icon, worshipped and loved by the masses – is shown peacefully overlooking the dining table

But love isn't often bestowed upon other mothers in this year’s festival programme, who are cheated on, abandoned, lied to, assaulted, raped. And they are hardly ever really appreciated before passing away – thus living an utterly unfulfilled life made up of sacrifices and sad compromises, as The Father also delicately demonstrates.

In this context, the mother in Vardis Marinakis’ Greek drama Zizotek [+see also:
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stands out as an exception. Feeling trapped by single-parenthood and the responsibilities society puts on women (mothers in particular), she deserts her son, perhaps believing he would be better off without her. Unable to play the role expected from her, she rejects the idea of motherhood – but her character is not explored in a manner that plumbs any substantial depth.

There is, however, a telling a moment in which she kisses a framed picture of the Virgin Mary as she frantically dives into water at a folk-music festival. Perhaps she is seeking forgiveness or looking for guidance. But she receives neither, ending up working in a brothel – thus cementing the dichotomous idea of a woman being either a mother or a whore.

The women in Lendita Zeqiraj’s Aga’s House [+see also:
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are victims of a different kind of entrapment. Residing in a safe house somewhere in rural Kosovo – a supposedly transitional arrangement after the war – they are stuck in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do or talk about, and experiencing barely any contact with the outside world. Differing in age, ethnicity (there is a Croatian woman among them, continuously mocked by the group as a “Serb,” a clear sign the wounds of the war remain unhealed) and back-stories that brought them there, their only thing in common seems to be their “victimhood”.

Survivors of unspeakable war crimes, they have all been raped and abused by soldiers during and after the conflict – the consequence of one such violation being Aga (Arti Lokaj), a 9-year-old boy and sole male resident of the house. Lacking a father figure, he searches for a male presence to look up to. But the only man around seems to be guided by the same patriarchal, misogynistic mindset as the men responsible for his born-of-violence existence.

The film’s heart-breaking ending leaves open what kind of a man Aga will grow into. Will he be able to escape the circle of repressive patriarchy that still prevails in Kosovo? His mother and other “aunties” of the house – while undoubtedly broken and irreversibly traumatised – nevertheless fill their daily life with singing, laughter and raunchy chit-chat about sex and men. Zeqiraj thus gives them a refreshing element of sensuality so often denied to survivors of sexual assault, usually perceived through a limited prism of “victimhood”.

Rozafa Celaj in Aga’s House

Similar themes of rape and father-searching can be found in Serbian writer-director Stefan Malešević’s ambiguous Mamonga [+see also:
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, which often leaves the audience puzzled by its triptych structure and many narrative pieces that somehow fit together... or not. Opening in a small Bosnian town (before moving to rural Montenegro and finally Serbia over three seemingly unconnected stories), we witness a sensitively-handled rape scene between a chauvinistic truck driver and young bakery worker Jovana (Marta Bjelica).

This is executed via an extreme wide-shot of a dark, empty field, meaning we can barely see the horrendous act happening before us. We can, however, clearly make out the shadow of a man standing still not far away, witnessing the entire thing yet choosing to do nothing.

The man is another truck-driver, Marko (Dražen Pavlović), whom we also see in the second story. Now he is a priest in Montenegrin mountain village, one who has taken a vow of silence – perhaps to repent for the time he could speak up but elected not to. Religion therefore again comes into play, but this time the authorial attitude feels almost like mockery with an undertone of contempt.

Jovana now lives in the city and – echoes of Aga’s House – has a son, a boy who does not speak. And when the kid one day hides in a truck parked near his mother’s workplace, the theme of searching for a father figure once again emerges. The driver’s physical resemblance to the boy’s real father makes this sequence even more uncomfortable and confusing.

Fathers and sons thus seem to be a common thread of this year’s films at Karlovy Vary – despite the fact that many fathers seem to be (physically or emotionally) absent, unknown, or not in any real way related to the child they are taking care of, as in Zizotek. It requires the death of the mother to trigger the emotionally distant father-son duo of The Father to embark on their spiritual/emotional journey.

Along the way they deal with guilt, lies and the life-long resentment they have felt towards each other. Learning that Pavel himself is soon to become a father, one is left to wonder if he will be able to do things differently than the relative he so openly detests. This year’s KVIFF selection thus raises many questions about the never-ending cycle of patriarchy, and whether there is any chance of ever overcoming the toxic masculinity it produces. But the lack of strong, three-dimensional female roles nevertheless left a bittersweet aftertaste, with so many stories and perspectives left to be explored. Perhaps next year...

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