Mother and Child: An Unbreakable Bond

So I’m in the Middle East for a while, visiting family, getting to know this part of the world a bit more, and thinking of resolutions for the new decade. While I’m here, I thought I’d catch the 6th Dubai International Film Festival. The weather’s perfect (don’t hate) and though the whole affair has been scaled down to debt default-era proportions, it’s still quite fabulous. Gerard Butler is supposed to pop into a party later tonight, which I’m certainly looking forward to.

By the end of the week, I’m hoping to catch a few films, including Almodovar’s Broken Embraces (which I still haven’t seen), Peru’s La Teta Asustada, France’s Cartagena and Cherien Dabis’s critically lauded Palestinian émigré tale Amreeka (which is Arabic for “America”) among others.

And though everyone seems to be talking about a little futuristic film called Avatar, which will close the fest, I want to talk about something else: Colombian Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child, a heartfelt drama about three women whose lives are connected, unbeknownst to them. There’s Karen (Annette Bening), a 50-year-old nursing home attendant who cares for her dying mother but is consumed with guilt for having had a daughter of her own at 14 and given her up for adoption; Lucy (Kerry Washington), who is unable to conceive and hence goes through the grueling process of adoption, which eventually puts a strain on her marriage; and Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a self-assertive attorney shagging her widowed boss (Samuel L. Jackson) and her neighbor, and grappling with a profound sense of loneliness. At her core she just longs to belong to something, to someone. It’s worth pointing out that there are some parallels between her troubled character and Charlize Theron’s in The Burning Plain (written and directed by Mexicano Guillermo Arriaga).

Garcia (son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez) has made a career out of accurately and intimately portraying women (Mi Vida Loca, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her) but this may very well be his masterpiece, simultaneously fresh and fundamental. What could be more vital than the bond between mother and child? The focus is not whether you were wrong or right in giving up a baby for adoption or what constitutes a “good” or “bad” mother/daughter relationship. Rather Garcia’s message is that it’s never too late to understand this bond and make the most out of it during our time spent on earth.

The pic is brimming with meaningful details—foil balloons in a maternity ward foreshadow the fact that the biological mother who has agreed to give Lucy her baby will decide to keep it after all; a necklace that’s a family heirloom in Karen’s family is looking to make its way to the next generation in her broken family.

The dialogue is downright poetic at times and always intentional; nothing here feels superfluous—in one scene, Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Paul, asks Elizabeth, who is adopted, if she’s ever tried looking for her biological parents. She responds: “A father was never part of my imagination…but I live in her [her biological mother’s] hometown. How hard can it be for her Majesty to find me?” In another scene, a woman who is considering giving up her child asks Lucy if she believes in God. “I believe that we come from nothing,” Lucy responds. “And when we die, we go back to nothing.” And then she goes on to say that it’s what happens in between that counts. The irony is that all of this is happening in a benevolent nun’s office at a Catholic adoption center. And those types of details are myriad.

Then there’s the acting; Bening and Watts in particular elevate the picture out of potential Lifetime territory and into Oscar terrain. The pain of both characters is so palpable you almost don’t expect them to redeem themselves. That is, until they do. Elizabeth, for one, decides to have her (and Paul’s) baby all on her own, risking her life. The birthing scene is among the movie’s most artistic points, and proves Garcia has had plenty of experience with lighting as a cinematographer in Hollywood.

Rounding out the ethnically diverse cast is Jimmy Smits as Paco, the man who enters Karen’s life and saves her from her own personal hell. He’s the husband every woman wishes she had. Elizabeth Peña and Tatyana Ali have small yet memorable parts as Elizabeth’s supervisor in a low-paying job and Paul’s grown daughter, respectively.

The film elicited an enthusiastic round of applause at the end (keep in mind we’re in a Muslim country where sex scenes are usually edited out and there are at least two intense ones here). I, for one, was clapping and crying. Then I smiled as I saw all the Latino names in the credits, including Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu (as executive producer). Our momentum continues!

Sony Pictures Classics has acquired US rights to the picture following its world premiere in Toronto, so expect to see it in theaters in 2010.