The Essence of Parenthood

in 76th Venice International Film Festival

by Ofer Liebergall

“Three different films shown in Orizzonti explore what it means to be a parent in today’s world and under extreme circumstances.”

Cinema often tells stories about families and it was no surprise to find many of the movies screened at this year’s Venice Film Festival focusing on the subject of families in the changing world and exploring the theme from different angles. Among these movies, three stylistically different films, shown in Orizzonti/Horizons, seem to capture intense situations, the power of parenthood as a defining element in one personality or identity. All three movies were among the best films I saw in this year’s festival.

Tunisian director Mehdi M. Barsaoui’s A Son (Bik Eneich: Un Fils) is a movie that offers an intense and suspenseful viewing experience throughout its 96 minutes. Set in 2011, during the Arab Spring, a family trip to southern Tunis becomes a nightmare when they get caught in a clash between revolutionaries and authorities and 10-year-old son Aziz is shot and rushed to a nearby hospital in a critical condition. During his treatment, his parents put their life on hold, ready to sacrifice more of themselves to save their only son, but the process reveals a secret from the past, a secret that can change the dynamics of the family.

As the fight for Aziz survival continues and tension between his parents grows, the violent civil war in nearby Libya presents an illegal and immoral opportunity to save the boy’s life, but just as nothing is certain in the lives of this family, nothing is certain in the changing Arab world.

Barsaoui tells a gripping story that fuses the personal and political and the moral question that follow. Like the films of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, every choice made by every character seems logical and justifiable, despite causing pain to others and possibly leading to a terrible outcome. As the film progresses, the father emerges as the protagonist who find himself unable to protect his son and stand as the head of is household the way he believes a man should be – while a dictatorship collapses across the border, he discovers his safe life is also subject to turmoil, but he remains dedicated to his son above any other motive or logic. Even if Aziz will never recover and the marriage will never be the same, the commitment to the son is all he has left in his life.

Being a mother is all the heroine of Spanish director Rodrigo Sorogoyen movie Madre has in her life.  In her case, she has no way of reaching her son, discovering his whereabouts, or even if he is still alive. But she is willing to keep being a mother first, even at the price of leaving her home country, and putting her other relationships at risk.

Madre is based on a Sorogoyen’s Oscar-nominated short film. The feature opens with the same shot – single shot in which a young Spanish woman peaceful life is turned to hell when her 6-year-old son calls her from an isolated beach in France and tells her that he can’t find his father. The short film is a tense, virtuoso thriller whereas the feature has a different tempo and style, the tension replaced with a character study. Set 10 years later, the suspense derives not from the fate of the son, but from what the grieving mother might do to herself and to others around her.

Elena (brilliantly portrayed by Marta Nieto) is now living near the beach in France and work at a tourist café. One day, she spots a French teenager who reminds her of her son. She follows him home and the next day he contacts her, excited by what he thinks is a romantic interest from an older and still very attractive woman.

Although it’s clear the boy is not her son and despite the wishes and advise of her boyfriend, Elena continues her involvement in the teenager’s life. Even before she met him, she was referred to as the “crazy woman form the beach”, but her relationship with the young man threatens to cross the line in any given moment. Her will to become motherly again cause her want to be near the boy and sometime the way to do that is by partying with him and/or his friends in an inappropriate manner. In order to feel like a mother, she does things that every mother fears someone older might do with her son – and the young boy family is very present.

But the power of Sorogoyen’s movie comes from the occasions where it seems Elena immoral behavior could actually help both herself and the boy. In unusual circumstances, taking care of another human can take a form that may seems wrong and dangerous, but is in fact full of love. It’s impossible to know if and when Elena’s actions cross the line, and the filmmakers themselves don’t want to make this explicit, preferring to let the spectator understand a character is doing things that would seem unthinkable in any other film.

These two movies focus on a parent who life changes because of a traumatic event, but the film Sole by director Carlo Sironi centres on a protagonist who doesn’t want to become a parent, or even care or take care of anybody but himself.

Ermanno is a young Italian man who spends his time on slot machines. His uncle asks him to pretend to be the father of unborn child of Lena, a pregnant Polish woman willing to sell her baby to him and his wife. Lena moves in with Ermanno, who initially treats her poorly, showing no emotions and no interest in what she wants. But with time, he allows her more freedom and begins to connect with her and the soon to be born baby. He still doesn’t know what he wants to do with is life, but he does want to be a real father, even if that means betraying in family and working harder than he did before.

Sironi’s style is simple and precise; every scene is short and moves the story forward as the hero of the film takes more responsibility and show more feelings. Ermanno represents a generation of young Europeans who have no clear goal in life, but somehow being a parent, even just as a lie, changes him and show him that something was missing form is carefree life: being connected to other humans is a basic need.

Ofer Liebergall
Edited by Rita Di Santo