A Film a Week - Mother / Ema

Note: A Film a Week is a weekly column on this blog, run on Sunday for our English-language readers and friends, presenting usually local or European festival films to a wider audience. Every review is directly written and not translated.
Note #2: This review has been developed through the NisiMasa workshop on this year's edition of Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. It has been originally published on Nisimazine.

Mother, the third feature directed by Estonian novelist and TV personality Kadri Kõusaar (Magnus, The Arbiter), opens with our titular character at a green market, talking to an off-screen saleswoman and buying vegetables. Most of the rest of the film is set in and around her house in a small Estonian town. The early feeling is the one of a kitchen-sink drama: we see her dusting, cleaning, cooking, working in the garden and taking care of her comatose son, while her husband goes hunting with his friends or watches football on TV. Beautifully portrayed by Tiina Mälberg, Elsa, credited just as The Mother, is a stand-in for every middle-aged woman living in a man’s world: constantly tired from all the heavy lifting, a bit depressed, with her dreams shattered long time ago.

Her son Lauri is in a coma due to a shooting during a stick-up at an ATM. Since Lauri was in the process of buying an apartment, he had a lot of cash on his hand, and the gallery of characters, including his girlfriend, friends, colleagues, and even students, keeps coming to visit him on a scavenger hunt to find the money.

This is where things start to get interesting, as the (attempted) murder mystery takes a comedic turn, balancing deadpan humour and farce as if Coen brothers mashed-up a Kaurismäki film. On one hand, we have a pressure-cooker of emotions hidden under a stoic surface, and on the other people doing stupid things desperately, trying to live a life they dream about.

Cinematography by Jean-Noël Mustonen is fluid and enjoyable, especially for the film that is sort of “locked” in the house. The DoP keeps changing the camera angles in the few rooms the proceedings are confined to, and the palette of colours, varying from drab beige to cold bluish-gray, works perfectly in combination with dynamic editing.

With a deliberate pace, Kõusaar expertly peels off the layers of mystery. But after some time it gets repetitive and somewhat tiresome, since the said mystery is a relatively easy to figure out. The too-convenient and over-explanatory ending is not doing any favours either. Mother is a bit uneven piece of cinema, with background themes speaking louder and clearer than the main story. With all the Agatha Christie-like mystery, clever observations and sense of humour, maybe a novelization of the story, perhaps by Kõusaar herself, might be a good idea.

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