New parents are always advised to treasure every moment of their child’s infancy, even through the sleepless nights and bawling meltdowns for it all passes in the blink of an eye. Most parents, of course, have other stages of child-rearing to look forward to. For the incarcerated young mothers at Ukraine’s Odessa women’s correctional facility, however, those early years of bonding might be all they get: Their newborns may remain in their care until their third birthday, upon which they must be transferred to another guardian or, in many cases, an orphanage. It is on this wrenching deadline that Slovakian docmaker Péter Kerekes balances the drama of “107 Mothers,” an unusual and rewarding docufiction feature woven from the firsthand stories of multiple Odessa prisoners, executed with a blend of close-to-the-bone realism and heightened formal refinement.
A worthy and distinctive pick as Slovakia’s international Oscar submission, “107 Mothers” made a strong impression on premiering in Venice’s Horizons program, scooping a screenplay prize as well as sales in multiple European territories. Though its adventurous hybrid storytelling and rigorous technique make it an obvious festival favorite, Kerekes’ film is sufficiently involving and emotionally accessible to play on the general art-house circuit. Though the subject matter is solemn, its treatment here is streaked with wry, even faintly absurd humor, as well as a climactic hint of uplift that feels as fully earned as it is unexpected.
Though “107 Mothers” is predominantly a dramatized work — scripted by Kerekes with accomplished filmmaker Ivan Ostrochovský (“Servants”), and cast mostly with real-life interview subjects playing themselves — it strikes an immediate note of authenticity with an uncompromisingly graphic birthing sequence near the beginning. The mother is Lesya (Maryna Klimova, the only professional actor among the principals), a quiet, madonna-faced young woman recently sentenced to seven years for the murder of her husband, the newborn’s father.
Crimes of passion are the norm among the women of Odessa, though by this point, they’re rather dispassionately discussed. “Jealousy” is Lesya’s shrugging answer when a warden asks her why she did it. “I understand,” the warden replies wearily, and not without sympathy. There’s a guarded air of solidarity between the prisoners and their keepers in this all-female space, underlined by the fact that no adult man appears on screen in the course of the film. It’s one of Kerekes’ more playful contrivances that the children of the prison nursery are largely boys, making masculinity the most vulnerable presence in this ecosystem. Their care is divided between the mothers and prison staff, making for a complex hierarchy of authority that some may see as conflicted, and others communal — an unsentimental update of the old “it takes a village” mentality, at least until the dreaded birthday falls.
Resisting a jagged vérité aesthetic, Kerekes and cinematographer Martin Kollar instead find deftly stylized means of conveying the prison’s strange social fabric. Highly mannered, coolly distanced compositions invite us to consider spatial relations between guards, mothers and children, while repeated frames and motifs gradually allude to the structure and routine of life in Odessa. There are telling, subtle differentiations in the film’s unexpected airy, pastel-dominated color palette, ironically dominated by the sky blues of newborn boys and outdoor freedom alike — which just happen to echo the prisoners’ florally patterned but cheerless uniforms. The guards’ garb, aptly enough, takes a faintly stormier hue.
The outside world, meanwhile, is glimpsed through the eyes of Iryna (Iryna Kiryazeva), a solemn, kindly warden who takes more than the requisite interest in Lesya’s ticking-clock plight to find a family member to look after her son. Iryna, for her part, lives under the watch of her relentlessly critical mother, fretful about her daughter’s singledom and unglamorous lifestyle. Womanhood appears to be its own kind of prison in “107 Mothers,” endlessly subject to the judgments and restrictions of others, whether you’re notionally free or not. Still, Kerekes’ novel, briskly beautiful film finds pragmatic rewards in community, and the allies that you’re forced to make in desperate, confined circumstances. The women of “107 Mothers” mostly stand alone, but not wholly abandoned.