The elemental drama of festival closer 'Mother and Child'

Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia's new film is a story of loss, separation and reunion

May 08, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

"Mother and Child," starring Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, proves that its writer-director, Rodrigo Garcia, has become a master of crafting intimate dramas for the big screen. Let's hope that in its own quiet fashion this movie builds on its festival acclaim the way "The Hurt Locker" did. (It follows "The Hurt Locker" as the closing night attraction at the Maryland Film Festival.)

Garcia has long commanded the respect of Hollywood's top actor-stars. "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" (2001) starred Glenn Close, Cameron Diaz and Calista Flockhart, and "Nine Lives" headlined Close, Robin Wright Penn, Holly Hunter and Sissy Spacek.

But it took the HBO series "In Treatment," which he developed, to demonstrate that he could compel large audiences to pay ultra-close attention to complex relationships. (Garcia also directed much of the first season and wrote the first week's five episodes.) The role of the embattled shrink at the center of "In Treatment" restored Gabriel Byrne's luster as a thinking woman's heartthrob. More important, the series offered a haven of charged adult drama — a home away from home for film lovers sick of the bombast crowding movie theaters.

It would be terrific if that series' legions of fans followed him back into the cinema for "Mother and Child." This cathartic tale of lives lost and found follows several intriguing female characters whose lives have been affected because one gave up her newborn infant for adoption at age 14. Thirty-six years later, the still-single mother has never stopped writing letters to her unknown daughter, while her child, now a top attorney, pursues a life of utter independence. Bening plays the mother, Karen; Watts plays the daughter, Elizabeth. Both are superb. So are Kerry Washington as Lucy, a woman aching to adopt a daughter, and Jackson as Watts' boss and lover, Paul, who affects her more than she expects.

Garcia goes way beyond his episodic previous films: He creates a multifaceted story that snares his subjects and his audiences in a skein of accident and incident. (His father is Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.) He started in movies as a camera operator. His rare gift is to generate rich moods and conflicts through the marriage of words and keenly observed performances. Like "In Treatment," "Mother and Child" conjures contained yet seething atmospheres. I started our conversation by asking whether one work influenced the other.

Q: "In Treatment" put viewers on the sofa of the shrink's office — and kept them there as the emotions in the room mounted. "Mother and Child" has some of the same focused quality. Were you consciously building on that style?

A:. I think the connection is that they share the same sensibility. 'In Treatment' is based on an Israeli show that was just beautifully created. When I saw it, I thought this could be so easily adapted. I also felt it was so close to my own sensibility; I felt at home in that show. I had already written a great deal of "Mother and Child" when I did "In Treatment"; then I finished it after "In Treatment."

I did both with the same cameraman, Xavier Perez Grobet. "In Treatment," we did keep very still because we thought this had to live or die by the performances. We couldn't be screwing around with the camera in that room. In "Mother and Child" I also had the idea to do it classically, and Xavier took that to the next level. He said we should never move the camera. We only move the camera two or three times in the whole movie. When we do really move it, at the end, it's very meaningful. But otherwise it's a very uninflected style.

Q: Was that done to intensify our focus on the highly inflected performances?

A: One of the advantages this kind of subject matter has, in the broadest sense, is that the emotions around it are always strong, always loaded, whether they're joyful or sad, complicated or simple. Difficult stories did come out of the old, closed adoption system [which kept the birth mother anonymous]. Of course, some closed adoptions were as happy as contemporary adoptions. But all these stories talk about our primary attachments; they involve heart-wrenching separations and very moving reunions. It's no wonder that families separated and reunited are the subjects of great books as well as the cheesiest soap operas.

Q: Do you run the risk of people thinking that you're offering a prescription for open adoptions?

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