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Song of the long road: Alexander Sokurov’s Mother and Son

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Mother and Son

***** – a masterpiece

Alexander Sokurov isn’t referred to as “this generation’s Tarkovsky” because he shares the same nationality as the late Russian master; the work of both may not be very thematically similar, but Sokurov’s work is clearly a stylistic continuation where Tarkovsky left off. Sokurov’s Russian Ark may have been the most exaggerated example of that – the single, uncut take (the longest in film history) is an elongated example of Tarkovsky’s signature long, meditative takes. I suppose for Sokurov to truly be the “next Tarkovsky”, he would have had to reject the the stylisms of his work – to follow the chain of Soviet masters that have ignored their predecessors. Tarkovsky’s long takes are quite the opposite of the montage editing that partly made Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin the masterpiece that it is.

If Sokurov has rejected anything of Tarkovsky’s, it’s the length of his films. Many have complained that Tarkovsky’s work is generally too long (which isn’t a complaint I share) – yet Sokurov’s Mother and Son clocks in at a brisk 73 minutes. The length compliments the film beautifully – a daydream of this type would have been pointless to stretch. Too few filmmakers opt for experimenting with length (or create hours and hours of footage), and it’s a welcome change for Sokurov to go against the stereotypical length of what a feature should be, and go with one that best compliments the artistic vision.

Mother and Son has no definite plotline, only scenes of a very weak and very ill mother being cared for (and carried) by her devoted son. It is meditative in the most extreme ways – a cinematic whisper. Sokurov’s dreamy tone is heightened by his visualization of it all – which remains separate from anything Tarkovsky has done – a stretched and painterly piece of work. Sometimes the stretching is muddy and awkward to the eye, but the film reveals images of true and stunning beauty throughout. To call Mother and Son an experiment in visuals, length and tone would be somewhat fitting – but it is a welcome one and is certainly strong enough to stand on its own.

What makes Mother and Son only somewhat of an experiment is Sokurov’s careful ambiguity over what exactly the nature of the mother and son’s relationship is. Is the son’s unflinching servitude to his mother one out of love? Duty? Sexual desire? Guilt? Is it a dream, or a fantasy? There wouldn’t be so much to question had Sokurov not made the woman so weak, and the son’s devotion so strong. The literal carrying of the mother by the son adds to my questioning to its nature, and adds to the romance (be it sexual, or not).

To interpret it as sexual may be missing the point (or, realistically, may be marking it). A portrait of unflinching love is easy to be interpreted as more cynical and disturbing – as opposed to touching, revealing natural (and societal) human cynicism over how women and men (and mothers and sons) interact. This is probably even more exposed in Sokurov’s sequel of sorts, Father and Son (which I have not yet seen) – a film that has similarly been interpreted as sexual, perhaps on the basis of how one feels men should interact with one another. I find it easiest to interpret it all as fantasy of desire – not lust – but simply a son who misses his mother. Viewing the film from this light allows it to be a moving and poetic film on death, a theme covered much differently in Russian Ark.

Not to say there is no possible cynicism involved in interpreting it as a fantasy. The weakness of the mother (who is admittedly ill) in comparison to her son allows the male to tower over the female. There is no woman who signifies what females are to anyone more than their own mother, and this one is dependant in all aspects. Perhaps the longing is that of unmet affection, or domination – but my optimist gut (even in hindsight of Sokurov’s more cynical Russian Ark) tells me it’s simply the presence of one’s mother.

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