The Estonian film MOTHER (EMA) has all the ingredients of a satisifying mystery: secret love affairs, nosey policemen, missing money, and, of course, a dark and puzzling crime. Nevertheless, the film, which premieres internationally tomorrow at the Tribeca Film Festival, is less concerned with its central case—the shooting of a young man and the disappearance of a small fortune—and more with the psychology of the crime's countless suspects. In a town as small as this one, it seems, no one is above suspicion.
Produced, written, and directed by an all-female team, with Aet Laigu as producer and co-screenwriter with Leane Jalukse and Kadri Kousaar as director, MOTHER twists ingredients of a timeworn genre into a critical portrayal of the pressures of small-town life, the danger of desire, and the ambivalence of unplanned motherhood.
The film revolves around Elsa (Tiina Mälberg), a middle-aged woman living in suburban Eastern Estonia. Elsa's own life, in turn, revolves around caring for her adult son, Lauri (Siim Maaten), who was left in a coma after mysteriously being shot outside the local bank. One can gauge, from the visitors who flock to Elsa's door at every hour of the day to see her son, that Lauri was charismatic and well-liked—half the town, in fact, appears to have been wildly in love with him. In between confessions and tears, however, Lauri's friends, girlfriend, admirers, and the town's local policeman all ask the same questions: Who shot him, and why? And where is that large sum of money he withdrew shortly before his attack? Meanwhile, between making meals for her husband, Arvo (Andres Tabun), and meticulously attending to her comatose son, Elsa finds stolen seconds of happiness with her bashful lover, Aarne (Andres Noormets), and eavesdrops in on Lauri’s many visitors.
Elsa's life is, in short, not her own. It is claustrophobic, stifled, and determined by the demands of the men around her. "In one way or the other all the characters in the film are trapped in their lives," Laigu and Jalukse tell The Creators Project. The cinematography reifies this perspective, following Elsa closely and revealing the mundane horrors in her own life as well as in the lives of the people around her. As the screenwriters point out, everyone in MOTHER, regardless of gender, has "both grotesque and romantic sides to them [...] they are both beautiful and ugly, absurd and very much real."
This applies, too, to Elsa, of course, and to her very complicated relationship to her invalid son. "It’s such a taboo for a woman to say that she doesn’t want or like children," explain the screenwriters. "But not all women are meant to be mothers. They shouldn’t be judged." Elsa had Lauri at the age of 17. Before she got pregnant, she had dreams: dreams of traveling, and falling in love, and starting a successful and independent career. Then, Lauri came along and her freedom was stripped away, along with her youth. After regaining some freedom during her son’s adulthood, through a job and the start of a unexpected love affair, this dream of independence, just within her grasp, is taken yet again, this time by her son’s injury.
Despite all the time she spends bathing, dressing, and feeding him, in fact, Elsa is the only one who conspicuously does not speak to Lauri—not, at least, until the very end. “As a mother, Elsa was not close to her son to begin with and after the accident her resentment even grew, as she had hoped to move on in her life once Lauri was a grown-up,” Laigu and Jalukse say. “Of course, Lauri was also the constant reminder of her own mistakes, her own guilt. So, in order to be able to take care of him, she had to treat him almost like an object—until the very end. When all hope was lost, her anger and disappointment boiled over.”
MOTHER premieres internationally tomorrow at the Tribeca Film Festival, and plays on April 16, 18, and 22. Find out more on the festival's site.