Of Mothers and Daughters

Three excellent films about very complex and often dramatically heavy and painful relationships between mothers and daughters

In the ingenious melodrama by Douglas Sirk Imitation of Life (1959), in which Lana Turner played the role of her life, two painful relationships between mothers and daughters intertwine: one mother, because she is black, continuously gets rejected by her almost white daughter, while the other, because she is obsessed with her career, neglects her child… Sirk is not only a highly skilled connoisseur of the genre, but he is also an author who is close to people and their weaknesses. He is very well aware that such problematic relationships can never be fully resolved. The relationships between mothers and daughters, as one of the basic causes for drama in life as well as on film, span in all of its magnitudes, from non-existence to conflict or even annihilation when only splinters remain, from great classics such as Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford to action and camp films, such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Or films that are carried by impressive acting, such as Terms of Endearment, in which the mother and daughter’s misunderstanding is solved by death, starring two excellent actresses, Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger; or Anna Magnani who in her blind belief that she is working in her daughter’s best interest, in fact ends up torturing her, in Visconti’s masterpiece Bellissima (1951). All the way to recent independent productions such Little Miss Sunshine (2006), starring the wonderful Toni Colette who impressively portrays the warm and affectionate mother of a modern American dysfunctional family. In his films, Pedro Almodovar, one of the greatest modern directors, continuously deals with the topic of motherhood from a sort of an off-center and multi-sexual perspective. It suffices to remember his recent hit Volver (2006), which directly deals with the topic of a relationship between a mother and a daughter.

It is interesting how well the Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić portrayed the Bosnian war tragedy as a backdrop to an intimate story about a mother and a daughter; especially since in these parts, traditionally history and human destinies are almost as rule shown through stories about fathers and sons. In 2006, her film Grbavica, starring Mirjana Karanović, an outstanding actress and one of the greatest artists from former Yugoslavia, won the Golden Lion in Berlin and afterwards many other awards as well as, quite rightfully, getting great ratings in the film theatres. It is a story about a single-mother Esma (Mirjana Karanović) who lives with her twelve-year-old daughter Sara (Luna Mijović) in the post-war Sarajevo. Sara wants to go on a school trip and Esma gets a second job as a waitress in a night club in order to earn enough money for her daughter. Sara becomes friends with Samir whose father is also dead. Both fathers were supposedly killed as war heroes. Samir’s father was massacred near Žuč by Serbian nationalists, but when Sara asks her mother about her own father, Esma’s answers are always vague. The situation gets even more complicated when the school offers a free trip to the children who bring a written proof that they are the children of war heroes. Now Esma has to admit to Sara that she does not have any proof as her father’s body was never found. However, she promises to try and get the document. In the meantime she actually tries to get her hands on the money to pay for the trip. Sara cannot stop feeling that something is wrong and is completely shocked when in school they do not read her name among the other children of war heroes. Frantic she comes home and has a confrontation with her demanding the truth. Esma breaks down and brutally tells her daughter the true facts: she admits that she was raped in a prison camp and then gave birth to Sara. Having found out that her father was a Chetnik, Sara becomes distant… However, Žbanić lets the audience know that there is hope for this mother and daughter’s relationship and that in the coming years they might find a common language after all and rise above this trauma. The film ends with Sara’s departure for the school trip and at the last moment she decides to wave to her unfortunate mother. Life and love will prevail over war atrocities.

Butterfly Wings (Alas de mariposa, 1991) is an interesting, dark and intimate study of an unloved and unwanted girl’s lonely coming of age, directed by the Spanish author Juanma Bajo Ulloa. The film won the first prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival and afterwards three Goyas, the most prestigious Spanish film awards.

The heroine of Butterfly Wings is the six year old Ami, an extremely sensitive child who expresses herself much better through obsessively painting butterflies than talking. Her mother Carmen (the excellent Silvia Munt) is obsessed with giving her husband (Fernando Velverde) a son, which causes tragedy for the whole family. The girl wants her mother’s dedication and the father is the “weak link”, not able to organize the family’s relationships and give his beloved child enough love. The mother actually gives birth to a son, an event which only causes more tragic events that culminate when Ami is a grown-up and quite traumatized young woman. She gets raped but decides to keep the child and (maybe), at the beginning of a new life that she is carrying, begin a relationship with her mother. Even though Butterfly Wings is visually and acting-wise an impressive film, it cannot escape the stamp of the young director who constantly tries to infuse the audience with a lack of perspective.

Autumn sonata (Höstsonaten, 1978) by Ingmar Bergman reveals probably the most valuable fact about the relationship between mothers and daughters, which is that even parental love leads to mistakes that cause great pain, and that there is no unconditional love, which is the breaking of one of the greatest taboos, the one about unquestionable and perfect motherly love.

At the very end of her career and life, Ingrid Bergman delivered a masterful role in Autumn sonata. It was a rare opportunity for the two greats of Swedish cinema to work together on the same story. After having spent years neglecting her own children, the famous pianist Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) visits her daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) and her husband Victor (Halvar Bjork). To her great surprise, Charlotte discovers that her other daughter, mentally challenged Helena (Lena Nyman) whom she had previously placed in an institution, also lives there. The tension between Eva and Charlotte grows slowly but surely. One night during a long conversation they tell each other everything that has not been spoken out loud for years. The amount of bitterness, anger, unhappiness and pain is tremendous; Eva even accuses her mother of all of her oversights and misfortunes in life, even her sister’s illness. Even though, at first glance, Charlotte is to blame for her children’s misfortune because she has been a cruel mother interested only in her career and art, the conversation reveals that Charlotte has her own cross to bear, which defined her as a mother and person. Bergman was too intelligent of an author to demonize anybody, let alone a mother (or parents) whom he has devoted many a heavy paragraphs in his films. For him the most important question remains whether we have enough time to soothe the pain that others have caused us and that we have caused to others in order to move on in life.