Saturday, June 27, 2009

La terza madre (Mother of Tears, Dario Argento, 2007)

Mother of all horrors

The appearance of La terza madre (Mother of Tears, Dario Argento, 2007) on limited release in the United States, and its belated commercial screening in Metro Manila screens (undoubtedly butchered, in the approved Argento manner, by our Philippine censors), at least offers this not-insignificant revelation: Argento is back, and is as unapologetic and loony as ever.

The film is the capstone to what fans now call Dario Argento’s 'Three Mothers' trilogy, loosely inspired by essayist Thomas de Quincy’s Suspiria Profundis, a collection of essays recorded from opium-induced visions, particularly the section "Levana and the Three Sorrows." Levana, Roman goddess of childbirth, is reportedly joined by three companions: Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs; Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Shadows; and Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears.

De Quincy imagined the three mothers as figures representing human suffering; Argento re-imagines them as three powerful witches that create suffering just for, well, the hell of it. If Argento recasts De Quincy’s ideas in an altogether simpler, perhaps cruder form, he does accompany said ideas with intense and lyrical (and violent, and unhinged) visual poetry — fitting complement to De Quincy’s writing, which are often considered some of the finest examples of prose poetry ever written.

The film wastes no time introducing Argento’s visions: Asia Argento (the director’s daughter) plays Sarah Mandy, a student working at the Museum of Ancient Art in Rome. After witnessing a museum assistant being butchered (the assistant had broken the seal of a small ancient urn and — worst of all — spilled blood on it), Sarah runs from both the police and the witches pursuing her, at the same time attempting to learn the secret of the urn, and of the just-released Mother.

So far so what; the outline barely qualifies as a respectable premise, much less synopsis to a screenplay. Argento does add this much of a twist: turns out Sarah’s mother is Elisa Mandy (Asia’s real-life mother Daria Nicolodi), and that Elisa had previously battled Mater Suspiriorum; Elisa died in the battle, but Mater Suspiriorum was so drastically weakened that Jessica Harper’s Suzy Bannon managed to finish her off in Argento’s Suspiria (1977). A touch more history has been added to Argento’s sketchy mythos, and Sarah, unlike Harper’s hapless Suzy and Leigh McCloskey’s Mark Elliott (in Inferno [1980], Argento’s second film in the trilogy), has more at stake than mere survival (vengeance for her mother and the salvation of the world, for starters). And there’s a touch more logic to her continued survival than just pure dumb luck — Elisa was skilled in "white magic," and managed to pass some of her abilities on to her daughter.

But but but but--plot and characterization and least of all plausibility have never been high on Argento’s list of priorities (think of said elements as being the skeleton on which Argento hangs some of the bloodiest, most stylish hides ever harvested): a beautiful woman breaks a seal and demons promptly choke her with her own intestines; a lesbian medium admits to being a friend of Elisa and is horrifically impaled by a phalluslike pike, her lover blinded by a medieval instrument.

The film’s most elaborate deaths, to the disappointment of many Argento fans, aren’t on the level of lyrical excess of Suspiria or Inferno. But this is Argento some 30 years later, addressing the torture porn of directors such as Eli Roth and James Wan; more than repeating himself, or outdoing the single- (narrow-, small-) minded intensity of the younger folk, he seems to be instructing his artistic inferiors on the true potential of horror — not just the depiction of a single body’s violent overthrow but of the overthrow of a community, a city (at one point someone declares "the second fall of Rome"), by extension, a world. Streets are often empty in Argento’s other films; here they’re crowded, and full of the kind of violence one might find in a society at the edge of collapse. Killings in his films are often complex, violent, gory beyond belief; here Argento stages one of his most horrific scenes with the simplest of elements--a child, its mother, a bridge. To describe the Mater’s many onscreen manifestations throughout the city of Rome one has to go back to Quincy, from whom Argento has taken more than just the premise: "they utter their pleasure, not by sounds that perish, or by words that go astray, but by signs in heaven, by changes on earth, by pulses in secret rivers." Argento is allowing his sensibility to bleed into our more familiar world; purists may call this dilution but I submit that it’s more of a contamination.

The apocalyptic sensibility probably didn’t make much sense when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, 2007 (the economic meltdown started in earnest in July, but only deepened a year later); seen in today's more depressed, more depressing global conditions, one feels much more receptive to the idea of worldwide brinksmanship, of a darker, less certain, less hopeful planet. Argento at this point in his career doesn’t seem so much passé as he is prescient, not so much overwhelmed as he is overwhelming; it’s just that the scope of his latest is different, far wider in scope and ambition, shot on a relatively modest production budget.

And the ending, reviled by most, beloved by a few (please skip this paragraph if you have not seen the film)--the kinder critics call it a mood breaker; I say it’s a far more ambiguous moment. Sarah and her police escort emerge, alive, to laugh hard and long. But what, exactly, are they laughing at? At the joy of being alive? At the absurd intensity of the horrors they have survived? At the intense absurdity of having gone through literal hell, only to emerge into a world in apparent ruin, the end of all hopes and dreams? Yes, Argento, changed but unbowed, is back; all hail the dark lord, and may he wait only a fraction as long to produce a fourth "Mother" film.

First published in Businessworld 6.19.09

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