In an environment where the Virgin Mary is held up as the exemplar of motherhood, how does that ideal square with the noisier, messier, considerably less virginal reality of maternal life? That question lies at the heart of “Maternal,” a moving, lively study of conflicting duties and desires in a Buenos Aires hogar — a convent-based refuge for young single mothers — that marks an assured shift into narrative filmmaking for Italian docmaker Maura Delpero. Mixing starkly composed formalism with more organic, observational material of a piece with her non-fiction background, Delpero’s film most surprisingly risks a full lunge into melodrama with its story of a young foreign novitiate forming a contentiously deep attachment to one of the children in her care.
That’s a tricky range of registers to balance, but “Maternal” mostly does so with sensitivity and conviction. Premiering in the main competition at Locarno, this Argentine-Italian co-production will likely enjoy a long, high-profile festival run into 2020, while high-end arthouse distributors and major streaming platforms alike should gravitate toward the film’s blend of striking style and emotional accessibility. For Delpero, whose previous two documentaries made little impact outside Italy, it can be considered an auspicious international arrival.
The film’s opening shots swiftly establish the feminine conflicts and contrasts on which Delpero’s script is built. From a placid image of a middle-aged nun in full habit, we cut to the rawer, more ribald energy of two young, semi-dressed women chattering and bickering in a cramped bathroom: Makeup is applied, pubic hairs are tweezed, tattoos are flashed. Luci (Agustina Malale) and Fatima (Denise Carrizo) are longtime friends now rooming together in a crowded hogar: Scarcely adults themselves, both women have toddlers of their own, and no support system beyond the nuns who run the sanctuary with stately austerity.
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Yet while quiet, demure Fatima is happy to submit to their rules and devote herself to maternity, bottle-blonde Luci is a restless, rebellious livewire, who regards her cherubic daughter Nina (Isabella Cilia) as more of an obstacle to living than the reason for it. Taking the increasingly resentful Fatima for granted as a standby babysitter, she regularly sneaks out to drink, party and pursue no-good men; she’s on thin ice with the nuns, but worse still, her closest friendship is fading fast. Malale and Carrizo, both non-professionals, are excellent as women mutually lost in the margins, both revealing layers of damage and distrust that complicate their good-girl/wild-girl differences; Malale was herself discovered in a real-life hogar, which perhaps colors the reckless hunger she brings to Luci’s plight.
New to the convent, and around the same age as the two mothers, is Sister Paola (Lidiya Liberman, winsome as can be), an Italian novice so pure and pious she makes Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story” look like Marilyn Monroe. Outwardly, she may look as serene and settled in her calling as her stern superiors, but she clearly has unresolved spiritual conflicts and personal yearnings raging inside — which begin to emerge once the neglected Nina takes an immediate shine to her. (“She doesn’t look like a nun; she’s pretty,” the tot bluntly observes.) The feeling is mutual, and Paola’s playful bond with Nina escalates into quasi-guardianship when Luci suddenly goes AWOL from the hogar — a development that seeds tacit, nervous tensions among her fellow sisters.
It’s a scenario that raises age-old questions over maternal rights and responsibilities, yet Delpero’s script never feels didactic or debate-driven: Save for a slightly rushed, overplotted denouement, “Maternal” regards human behavior under psychological strain with unforced, even-handed compassion. The director’s documentary chops are most beneficially evident when portraying daily life in the mothers’ chaotic wing of the convent, capturing the labor, social life and occasional cacophony of a group parenting setup with fluid authenticity, and observing Cilia and the film’s other entirely naturalistic child performers with patient fascination.
The hushed, rigorously disciplined nuns’ side of the building, meanwhile, might as well be on another planet altogether, and Delpero’s filmmaking cannily maximizes the contrast between these realms: Soledad Rodriguez’s cinematography turns on a dime from dartingly sociable and intimate to coolly, rigidly composed, with the editing and sound design likewise adjusting their pace and tenor from scene to scene. This approach may niftily showcase just how much the director can do on screen, but there’s more to it than that: The film’s stylistic shifts and switches are ideally suited to a portrait of womanhood in which feminine identity has no single setting, much less a correct one.