×

Cannes Film Review: ‘Our Mothers’

A heartfelt though slight social-issue drama diluted by its formulaic structure and rudimentary screenplay.

Director:
César Díaz
With:
Armando Espitia, Emma Dib, Aurelia Caal

A forensic anthropologist recovering the bones of people killed during Guatemala’s dark civil war believes he may have found his father’s remains in “Our Mothers,” a heartfelt though slight drama whose surprise Camera d’Or win at this year’s Cannes will significantly boost the film’s chances on the fest circuit. César Díaz’s debut may be one of the few fiction features to look at the horrors of the genocide perpetrated by the U.S.-backed military against the indigenous population, but his rudimentary screenplay is so overly didactic that the good intentions are diluted by the formulaic structure and writing. Notwithstanding a few genuinely affecting moments, “Our Mothers” never breaks free from being a standard social-issue movie mostly invested in preaching the cause.

Overworked Ernesto Gonzalez (Armando Espitia, “Heli”) is a forensic anthropologist tasked with identifying the bones of people killed by the right-wing government in the 1980s. Given that most bodies were dumped in unmarked mass graves or secretly buried in municipal cemeteries, the job is time-consuming though rewarding, with each identification (generally through DNA) a means of validating the individual and offering closure to survivors. In many cases, the only way of locating the mass graves is by winning the trust of wary rural indigenous communities who’ve kept the memory of these sites alive even when denied access by authorities.

Ernesto meets Nicolasa (Aurelia Caal), a Mayan woman whose husband was tortured and killed in 1982 for giving food to rebels. Herself a victim of rape by the same soldiers who murdered her husband, she’s hoping the forensics expert will be able to recover bones in a mass grave in the mountains. The case takes on extra meaning when Nicolasa identifies a rebel leader in a photograph with her husband, and Ernesto recognizes the man as his father, one of the thousands of guerilla fighters whose exact fate was never known. Suddenly locating the bones becomes even more compelling given that his mother, Cristina (Emma Dib), is about to testify at a trial of former soldiers involved in the civil war.

The manner in which Díaz generally spoon-feeds information turns “Our Mothers” into a primer on the Guatemalan genocide, and as such might serve a purpose for those who’ve never heard of the atrocities, as well as for survivors moved to see their adversities addressed on screen. The problem is it all feels so formulaic and predictable, down to expected images of dignified peasants set against weathered clapboard homes, accompanied by sentimental piano music. A scene of Ernesto transcribing testimonies rather heavy-handedly introduces other stories, ensuring the scale of the government-sponsored massacres is crystal clear.

As witnesses of the genocide, the Mayan women of Guatemala are the bridge between past and present, repositories of memory and conduits for justice; Díaz is to be commended for emphasizing their ordeals, yet only occasionally does he manage a subtlety otherwise absent in the screenplay: One such instance is near the end, when Ernesto receives important news and the camera maintains a discrete distance down a corridor, temporarily keeping the audience guessing as to the outcome. Another is the way Díaz shoots from above scenes of Ernesto assembling bones on a forensics table, emphasizing the sense of a whole person being revealed through this painstaking labor.

Cannes Film Review: 'Our Mothers'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics Week), May 21, 2019. Running time: 76 MIN. (Original title: “Nuestras Madres”).

Production: (Belgium-France-Guatemala) A Pyramide release (in France) of a Need Prods., Perspective Films, Proximus, Cine Concepcion production. (International sales: Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Producers: Géraldine Sprimont, Delphine Schmit. Co-producers: Joaquin Ruano, Pamela Guinea.

Crew: Director, writer: César Díaz. Camera (color, widescreen): Virginie Surdej. Editor: Damien Maestraggi. Music: Rémi Boubal.

With: Armando Espitia, Emma Dib, Aurelia Caal, Julio Serrano Echeverría, Victor Moreira. (Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • BOTM-Eve-Viper-Gang

    Director Angus Gibson: My Audience is ‘Young, Black South Africans’

    DURBAN–Sophiatown, 1958. On the outskirts of Johannesburg, as the apartheid police prepare to demolish the community at the heart of black South African cultural and intellectual life, a notorious gang leader is determined to make a last stand. Resisting the forced evictions that will transport the residents of Sophiatown to a desolate township miles away, [...]

  • marvel

    Marvel Phase 4 Plan Revealed, But Comic-Con’s Big Winner is Disney Plus

    In a triumphant return to the San Diego Comic-Con main stage, leadership at Marvel Studios managed some splashy surprises and showed off risky creative bets for the next two years of content coming from the superhero operation. But the biggest takeaway from the Saturday presentation inside Hall H was how important Marvel will make Disney [...]

  • Florence Pugh, O. T. Fagbenle, Rachel

    'Black Widow': Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh Go Head-to-Head in First Footage

    Marvel’s “Black Widow” has only been in production for a month, but studio president Kevin Feige still delivered the goods for fans at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. Filmmakers brought an intense sizzle reel of on-location shots, kicked off by a dazzling and bone-crushing fight sequence between lead Scarlett Johansson and her on-screen sister Florence [...]

  • Natalie Portman Thor

    Natalie Portman Returns for 'Thor: Love and Thunder' as Female Thor

    Natalie Portman is coming back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but she’s no one’s love interest this time around. The Oscar winner will play a female god of thunder in the fourth film from the Chris Hemsworth series, titled “Thor: Love and Thunder.” More Reviews Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical Film [...]

  • Fantastic Four

    New 'Fantastic Four' Movie in Development at Marvel

    Marvel is going back to the Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige announced that a new movie based on the superhero group is in the works at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. Further details, however, including a release date, were not revealed. More Reviews Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical Film [...]

  • Mahershala AliMarvel Studios panel, Comic-Con International,

    Mahershala Ali to Star in Marvel's 'Blade' Reboot

    Marvel is rebooting the “Blade” series, and has cast Mahershala Ali to star. Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige announced the news at Comic-Con on Saturday as the panel’s big ending surprise. Ali also took the stage at the announcement to massive applause, donning the Blade baseball cap. More Reviews Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn [...]

  • Doctor Strange

    'Doctor Strange' Sequel Billed as First MCU Horror Film at Comic-Con

    A sequel to “Doctor Strange” was announced as expected on Saturday at Marvel’s Comic-Con panel — what we didn’t see coming was the tone. Director Scott Derrickson said the film, titled “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” will mine the original comics and play up “the gothic, the horror.” Derrickson said it will lead [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content