The author Agatha Christie once described a mother’s love as being like “nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dates all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.” Few other quotes so sincerely encapsulate the everlasting power that stems from the maternal connection shared between a mother and her child, but in cinema, such profound renderings are more prevalent.
From children’s classics such as Disney’s Bambi, through to the more mature portraits sketched by the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Richard Linklater, the dynamic bonds of motherhood have been explored on the screen in ways that audiences across the globe have found to be both rich, and profoundly rewarding. And so, given that today is Mother’s Day, we couldn’t think of a better opportunity to celebrate the films we believe capture that spirit & strength described by Christie; that transcend the matriarchal archetypes, and offer us an insight into the joys, pressures and complexities of being a mother.
Bambi (Dir. David Hand, 1942)
Disney’s 5th animated classic may be remembered by many for its devastating second act twist, but it’s a story with so much more to offer. Indeed, in this critic’s eyes, it is one of the most definitive coming-of-age dramas ever committed to film; chronicling the titular deer’s journey from young fawn, to Prince of the Forest. It may have been made for children, but there’s a radical maturity to this exploration of a mother-son relationship that simultaneously carries an intense emotional heft, and a cosy nurturing warmth. Though our memories of this masterpiece may be synonymous with a single scene, Bambi remains a shining example of cinema at its most honest, heartfelt, and beautifully understated. JM
Mommy (Dir. Xavier Dolan, 2014)
Xavier Dolan wasn’t even 25 when he made Mommy, his fifth film in as many years, yet with it he displayed the creative confidence of a filmmaking veteran. Once more exploring the relationship between a mother & her teenage son (played by Anne Dorval & Antoine-Olivier Pilon), Dolan employs a claustrophobic 1:1 screen ratio to accentuate the anguish and anxiety felt by both characters, but particularly Dorval’s Die; who regularly finds herself overwhelmed by her son’s unpredictable temper. Their relationship is one built on a destructive codependency, but it’s defined by their ferocious love for one another. Dorval’s depiction of a mother determined to do right by her son at any cost makes for devastating viewing at times. But, crucially, Dolan’s peppy script ensures the tone is always intrinsically balanced with wit & pathos; a magnetic, mesmerising marvel. JM
Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2014)
One of the most innovative pieces of filmmaking, and a career defining role for Patricia Arquette, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was filmed over 12 years, making it not only into a cinematic first, but also into one of the most critically acclaimed films of the decade. The film is an honest representation of motherhood, for which Arquette rightly won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a single mother struggling to bring up her children all the while trying to forge a career for herself. The film does a great job of exempting on-screen mothers from being represented as saintly figures, with Linklater managing to by-pass the usual tropes and cliches to offer a realistic portrayal of a modern woman, who also happens to be a mother. LM
We Need To Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsey, 2011)
Lynne Ramsey’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver book of the same name, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is a shocking account of a woman haunted by regret and motherly guilt. Tilda Swinton is mesmeric as the broken woman whose life has been turned upside down by the actions of the teenage son she thought she knew and loved. This may not exactly be the most cheerful or the most uplifting film to add to your Mother’s Day viewing schedule, but it is nevertheless one of the best films ever made about parental guilt. LM
All About My Mother (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)
Perhaps my favourite of all Pedro Almodóvar’s films, All About My Mother follows Manuela, who leaves Madrid after the tragic death of her son and moves to Barcelona, where she finds friendship and a renewed sense of purpose from an group of actors performing in A Streetcar Named Desire. The film is brilliant in its depictions of motherhood is all its forms, which include the grieving Manuela, a pregnant and HIV positive nun, and even a childless actor playing a pregnant woman in a play. What is built in a series of scenes is a sense that anyone can relate to the great screen mothers, whether it is Blanche DuBois, Manuela, or any of the other compelling maternal figures that have captivated us over the years. WHP
Rosemary’s Baby (Dir. Roman Polanski, 1968)
Having grown up in Nazi occupied Poland and later fleeing the concentration camps that would take the life of his mother it is no surprise that Roman Polanski has such a dark view of motherhood. Rosemary’s Baby centres around a young couple who move into a New York apartment and decide to start a family. Once Rosemary becomes pregnant she seems to lose agency over her life, with her husband and an elderly couple next door increasingly controlling it, and begins to suspect that those around her are part of a sinister cult. Everything in this film is seen from Rosemary’s point of view so that we feel every nuance of her panic, terror, and vulnerability. Rosemary’s Baby can be interpreted in two ways, either as a horror film about a satanic conspiracy, or as an allegory for the worries and paranoia of pregnancy and early motherhood. WHP
Volver (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)
Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), mother to teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), is married to a lazy, layabout. Her sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), runs an illegal hair salon out of her home. Their mother, who died 4 years previous in a house fire, has been sighted in their windswept Manchegan hometown and after tragedy strikes, returns to support them in a time of need. Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver plays out like a telenovella, with all the trademarks of a melodrama – love, friendship, sickness, superstition, death – but with an off beat sense of humour and so much warmth you could wear it as a cardigan on a chilly autumn night. This is a brightly coloured celebration of relationships between women and although the dramatic tension is driven by the consequences of the sexual depravity of two men, in this world men are peripheral. At its core this film is about mothers and daughters, the sacrifices they make and the bonds they share. Almodóvar paints the sets in a lavish, passionately fiery red. It’s a beautiful, hyper real, sensational world, bursting at the seams with the tough tenderness of loving women. Penelope Cruz’s turn as Raimunda is heartfelt and confident with a subtly that’s fierce and charming. MM
Mamma Roma (Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962)
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film, Mamma Roma, is a tour de force in filmmaking. The director’s last foray into neorealism, it’s the story of a middle aged prostitute, Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani), who, having saved enough money for a flat in Rome, moves her estranged son – Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) – there to start a new life and provide him with a better future. Magnani’s performance as Mamma Roma is powerful and bold. She is a striking woman, hard, domineering and strong. Driven by her love for her Ettore, who, disillusioned, falls into a world of petty criminality, she sacrifices her freedom from her life of prostitution to protect and provide for him. Pasolini’s film is fierce statement on what he viewed as the corruption of modern Italy. It’s movement away from the traditional values of the working class and towards the new consumerist appetite of the bourgeois. Like the cackling laughter of Mamma Roma, loud and filled with a forced tentative joy, there lies a quiet, deeply sad desperation, a mourning for the way in which things have turned out. MM
Contributors: James McAllister, Wyndham Hacket Pain, Linda Marric and Michael McNulty.