Mater (aka Matriarch) (2019)

Mater first published by EyeforFilm at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival 2019

“I’m not leaving this house. Never.”

The speaker is Anka (Neva Rosic), a crafty, cancerous, cantankerous old widow who maybe knows, maybe does not, that her adult daughter Jasna (Daria Lorenci) has come all the way from her own home in Berlin to arrange for her to go into full-time care. Not long afterwards, Anka will complain that, in her home in a Croatian village, “I’m suffocating in all this filth.” 

Suffocation, and the sense of being condemned to stay in a house, are feelings which Jasna shares, rather asymmetrically, with her mother. The truth is that Jasna left for Germany so many years ago to get away from Anka’s oppressive stranglehold, and now that she has come back somewhat reluctantly – just watch her sharp intake of breath before she enters the house – the day or so that she is planning to spend will, as Anka falls more and more ill, turn into weeks and months, leaving Jasna to wonder if she will ever leave the house and get to be with her own husband and children again.

Mater (aka Matriarch) may be named for a word meaning ‘mother’, but its focus is always steadfastly on the daughter, as DP Jana Plecas’ camera clings to Jasna in claustrophobic close-up (and sometimes long take), tracking her every move and facial expression amid a hostile environment of resentments and microaggressions. Yet Jasna is of course herself a mother, and as we watch her Skyping her young children, and (lightly) nagging them to spend less time online, we wonder – as she wonders – how far she has fallen from her own mother’s tangerine tree.

Where Anka is a manipulative monster, Jasna too is capable – if not quite as capable – of playing mind games. As time passes – in a film that is very much, right down to its chronology-calibrating intertitles, about the passing of time – Anka herself will be both proven partly right in long-running disputes where Jasna has simply assumed she must have been wrong, and will also, nearing death, become less harsh and more childlike in her behaviours. So it is that, in the time that Jasna spends imprisoned as carer with Anka, they will both find an understated sort of sympathy with each other, even a reconciliation of sorts, in a few snatched (or recalled) moments that bring a little joy to all the choking tension.  

Dying and death still remain big taboos in our culture – and while Mater will prove a confronting and difficult watch, especially for anyone who has lost their parents, it also avoids the trap of hyperbolic pathos or grandiose emoting, instead carefully and sensitively observing all the nuances (guilt, recrimination, regret) that are part of living (with) grief. This is a very subtle and accomplished feature debut from writer/director Jure Pavlović.  

© Anton Bitel