Parenthood, or its possibility, provides the thread for four interlocking stories in “Mamas & Papas,” Czech writer-director Alice Nellis’ engrossing fourth feature. Kinetically edited overlapping scenes, reprised from different viewpoints, allow the pic’s various strands to dovetail organically, without gimmickry, while expert, largely improvisational thesping enables a wide range of tonal shifts and mood swings (not all of them pregnancy-induced). Narrative winner at the Hamptons fest, this moving, highly intelligent pic could score as an arthouse sleeper, especially but by no means exclusively with femme auds.
Addressing multiple hot-button aspects of procreation — from abortion to in vitro fertilization to that omnipresent cinematic device, the death of a child — with lucid serenity, the clear-eyed pic maintains a wry, compassionate distance from its characters’ dilemmas that excludes neither comedy nor pathos.
“Mamas” opens from a child’s-eye view, through the rose-tinted goggles of little Helena (Helena Tachovska), observing patients’ comings and goings in the fertility clinic that employs her doctor mother Irena (Zuzana Bydzovska, extraordinary in a tour-de-force role). Helena’s subsequent death on a school-bus excursion (shades of “The Sweet Hereafter”) quietly haunts the film, and Irena’s difficulty in coping with her loss drives her to North Africa to seek spiritual solace in the depths of the Mediterranean.
The film’s four narratives vary in depth and amplitude. Irena’s odyssey constitutes the film’s primary drama, but nearly as overarching is the yarn involving Irena’s patients Filip and Zuzi (real-life marrieds Filip Capka and Zuzana Capkova). Their joyous intimacy slowly turns to frustration, depression and disillusionment as each successive stab at unnatural procreation proves futile. But the strength of Nellis’ direction is such that the pic never evolves in an inexorably straight line.
An abortion underscores the frailty of the relationship between Filip’s brother Michal (Michal Capka, Filip’s real-life brother) and girlfriend Tereza (Marthe Issova). This much shorter section functions as a rhythmic foil to Filip’s plot, as earlier scenes involving the two brothers (including a pivotal phone conversation) are replayed from a different perspective.
The fourth story seems unconnected to the other three, perhaps reflecting the outsider status of an immigrant couple with two children, as economic uncertainty leads Aljona (Natalya Volkova) to consider giving up her baby for adoption, plunging the pic into a working-class world of supermarket checkers and hostile bureaucracy.
Nellis (“Little Girl Blue”) and editor Petr Mrkous have fashioned a complex tapestry, free of moral judgment, where the unfolding of individual dramas is secondary to the composition of the whole. This overriding aesthetic also informs David Calek and Matej Cibulka’s lensing, from the harried urban scramblings of transplanted Ukrainians to shimmering ripples of sorrow by the sea.