First published by EyeforFilm
From the very outset, Dario Argento’s Mother Of Tears abounds in images of the past being disinterred and returning to haunt the present.
Its title sequence features a digital rearrangement of demonic details taken from various medieval woodcuts and paintings. Its opening scenes show some modern workmen at a church accidentally excavating an old coffin with an even older urn attached. A nervous priest (Tommaso Banfi) has the urn secretly dispatched to English art historian Michael Pierce (Adam James), in Rome, but before Michael even has a chance to see it, two of his students, Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) and Giselle Mares (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni), have broken its wax seal and unwittingly unleashed a long-dormant evil.
This obsession with the reemergence of history is not just some hoary old horror convention (although it is certainly that as well), but also Argento’s way of announcing his own long-awaited return from the dead.
With his early films, such as The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971), Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971) and the influential Deep Red (1975), Argento cemented a reputation as the Hitchcock-inflected, gore-drenched king of giallo, and as one of the world’s leading manipulators of baroque filmic spectacle – but in 1977, he took these talents in a new direction with arguably his finest film, Suspiria. A macabre phantasmagoria pitched somewhere between eerie fairy tale and grand guignol nightmare, Suspiria had few cinematic precedents in either its heady style or its content, and remains even today a real benchmark of mannerist horror.
Suspiria was in fact just the first part of a projected trilogy, known collectively as the ‘Three Mothers’ and concerned with a trio of powerful sibling witches. The second film in the series, Inferno (1980), was (relatively) quick to follow but, despite featuring several memorably murderous set-pieces (and one of the finest underwater sequences ever committed to celluloid), failed to achieve its predecessor’s delirious heights owing to a daftly disappointing ending.
So the idea for the third film was indefinitely shelved, and thereafter, only 1985’s Phenomena (aka Creepers), featuring a young Jennifer Connelly in her first big role, admitted anything like the supernatural irrationality of Suspiria. Otherwise Argento reverted almost completely to the more conventional giallo form with which he had first made his name, pushing out twisted psychological thrillers like Tenebrae (1982), Opera (1987), Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) and Sleepless (2001). Anyone who has even bothered to catch up with his latest films, the straight-to-dvd The Card Player (2004) and the made-for-TV Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005) has been forced to bear witness to a once-great talent in steady decline.
Therefore the director’s admirers have invested a lot of hope in Mother Of Tears, his trilogy-closer, finally made some 30 years after the original release of Suspiria, presumably in part to cash in on Argento’s recent recognition as one of Showtime’s ‘Masters of Horror’ (he has so far contributed two well-received episodes to the ongoing series), and also to tie-in with a slated Hollywood remake of Suspiria – just the thought of which is sacrilegious enough to fill many horror fans with (the wrong kind of) dread. With Mother Of Tears, could he really, like the Mater Lachrymarum who gives the film its title, be returning to bring a second reign of blood, chaos and terror to the world? Or will he, like his heroine Sarah in the film’s final reel, find himself once again wading through shit? The truth lies somewhere in between.
Almost as soon as Giselle has unsealed the urn, three shadowy figures (and a rascally monkey) appear and ritually disembowel her. Guided by a mysterious voice, Sarah manages to escape, only to find the police, apart perhaps from Detective Enzo Marchi (Cristian Solimeno), doubting her wild story. As assaults, suicides and murders spread rapidly through the Roman populace, and groups of weird women begin converging on Rome from all over the world, Sarah goes on the run, turning to an ageing exorcist (Udo Kier), a lesbian medium (Valeria Cavalli) and a wheelchair-using alchemist (Philippe Leroy) for answers. She had better hurry, for with the police, murderous witches, and even the Mater Lachrymarum herself (Moran Atias) all closing in, who knows what the dawn will bring?
Mother Of Tears is a strange blend of past and present. Its heroine carries a Noughties-era mobile phone, but ends up having to resort instead to old-fashioned phone booths. Its witches, with their big hair and excessive eyeliner, seem less like supernatural hags than Eighties throwbacks out on a hen night. Its sadistic set-pieces, including a graphic evisceration, a double eye-gouging, a sexualised impalement, and a blood-soaked orgy, hark right back (nostalgically, some might say) to the outrageous extremity of Argento’s censor-baiting work from the 1970s and 1980s, and yet do not seem out of place amongst today’s so-called ‘torture porn’. Plus ça change…
There is also the sense, appropriately for the final chapter of a trilogy, of a circle being closed. In Suspiria, Argento’s then girlfriend (and co-writer) Daria Nicolodi was originally to have played the heroine, until Argento cast the younger Jessica Harper in her place. Others can speculate on the Freudian implications of Argento’s decision then to have Nicolodi, who had recently given birth to his daughter Asia, provide the creepy voice of that most wicked of mothers, the Mater Suspiriarum – but in this second sequel, Asia herself plays the heroine Sarah, while Nicolodi returns as Sarah’s protective mother Elisa, a white witch who had once faced off against the evil Mater Suspiriarum. A kind of order, it seems, has been restored in the Argento household.
Argento himself, however, still happy after all these years to work alongside his daughter (as in Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome and Opera), but also still subjecting her to nude shower scenes, continues to raise questions about his own qualities as a father – even as he finally stops questioning Nicolodi’s status as a mother. It is the sort of evolving psychodrama that gives this ‘family’ trilogy an added edge of discomfort.
There is plenty in Mother Of Tears that fails to impress. Dashing frantically from one set-piece to the next, Sarah never really makes the transition from plot-vehicle to character (despite Asia Argento’s best efforts to flesh her out), while most of the people that she encounters along the way are just mouth-pieces for exposition, the sheer amount of which works somewhat against the film’s more surrealistic leaps in logic. Although this is one of very few films that he has made in English, it still feels as though it has been badly dubbed. And Mother Of Tears never comes close to matching the stunning colour-saturated aesthetic of its two predecessors.
At least one cannot fault the film for its ending, where what at first appears to be the tiredest of redemptive clichés turns out, upon reflection, to be far more insidiously open-ended. As we are told in the film, “What you see does not exist; what you cannot see is truth” – and in the end, while the surviving characters are clearly elated by what they can (and we cannot) see, the obvious relief on their faces (which we can see) may have little substance to it after all. Some vicious mythologies just keep coming back…
© Anton Bitel