Classic cinema: I wept and wept, from start to finish

A FRIEND of mine invited me to attend an advance screening of a Russian film in Soho. I asked him what it was like and he said, "Well, nothing really happens and then someone dies. Come along. You'll love it." My friend was releasing the film in this country, so I felt obliged. Sitting through a Russian film is the kind of thing friends do for each other.

I arrived late and made my way to the front row just as the opening credits were ending. Ten minutes in, I started quietly crying and continued to do so for the 73-minute duration of the film. Now, I've cried in films before but I can't remember crying quite so hard, without pause, all the way through. When the film ended and the lights came on, a red-eyed woman sitting two rows behind me pushed a Kleenex in my direction and asked me if I would write something about it for one of the newspapers.

The film is called Mother and Son, and is directed by Aleksandr Sokurov. It explores the final day in the life of a dying mother (Gudrun Geyer) and her adult son (Alexei Anaishnov). It is morning. The mother wants the son to take her for a "walk", which involves carrying her through a series of dreamlike landscapes, whereupon he returns to their bare, isolated home, feeds her, and puts her to bed. The son then leaves the house to walk on his own and returns to find that she has died. All this takes 76 minutes. But what we witness in that time is a thing of such beauty, such sadness, that to cry, for me, was the only adequate response.

Mother and Son is a film about Death and about Love and about Grace. The love, between a mother and her son, transcends ordinary love in that it is purified by the imminence of death. Death awaits them both with absolute certainty: the mother who will die, the son who will be left alone. Time seems respectfully to have slowed to a pace at which the careful motion of love has room to play itself through: no action is rushed, for that would simply hurry death on. The characters have achieved a state of emotional and spiritual grace. They seem cut adrift from their histories, alien to their environment, and unaffected by the world beyond their own. All that exists are gestures of comfort, of care, of tenderness. The son brushes the mother's hair, wraps her blanket more tightly around her, feeds her with a teated bottle. The mother responds with strokes and caresses: all that her failing strength will allow.

It is a relationship, in a sense, that is not meant to be seen. It is sacred, religious, uncomplicated by any prurient intrusions of 20th-century analysis. It is a view of humanity that has truly become transcendent; yet Sokurov makes no bones about the tragic nature of death. Death hangs heavy over everything, saddening each gesture, weighing down each action. Even the landscape appears to be in mourning for the mother's imminent demise. Here we see the Passion, shown in tableaux, occasionally reflecting the Christ story: the Passion not of the ailing mother but of the son, not of the dying but of the one who is left behind.

The dialogue, too, seems strangely ineffectual, as if the protagonists' love and understanding has rendered language unnecessary. When they do converse, their words seem to lack any true purpose. They neither comfort or clarify, for all is said in the knowledge that exists within each gesture. There is psychology in words, there is complication and pain. This is no better evinced than in their final conversation, in which they discuss reasons to die and reasons to live. The dialogue is futile and cruel, and serves only to reopen the feelings of grief.

Says the mother: "It's so sad. Anyway, you will still have to go through all that I have suffered."

"Have a little nap, mother," says the son. "Have a sleep. I will be back soon."

The son leaves the house and moves into the exquisite landscape that surrounds it. It is in these long, lingering, nearly motionless scenes that the film rises to heights of the most breathtaking beauty. Sokurov's landscapes are not burdened by any desire for realism. His scenes are transformed into cinematic canvases, far closer to painting than to film, awash with artificial, opalescent light. These dream-born vistas recall the work of the German Romantic painters of the early 19th century: in particular those of Caspar David Friedrich, in which everything is softened by a milky lustre. The vastness and mystery of this heightened nature creates a spirituality not dependent on any formula of traditional Christianity. And the care Sokurov applies to these fastidiously crafted scenes echoes the care with which his characters treat each other - the devotion to detail, the unhurried tenderness, the love.

All of this beauty is given a pace, a time- scale dictated by the encroachment of death. Each piece of action, each gesture - slow, plangent, important, sacred - allows the viewer the time to fall under its spell and to be seduced by its powerful and very serious impulses. Watching this film, we are forced to confront the inevitability of our own mortality, and the mortality of others. Emotions are awakened within us of a sort that cinema hasn't dealt with for a long time.

My initial response to this film was to shed tears for the sadness of things. And its unique pulse has reverberated through me ever since.

'Mother and Son' (U): Renoir, WC1 (0171 837 8402), from Fri.

'The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' (Mute Records) is released on 11 May.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

    £22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

    Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

    £14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones