Playing a middle-aged woman still remorseful about the teenage decision to give up her out-of-wedlock baby for adoption, Annette Bening’s quietly convincing and uniquely moving performance in Rodrigo Garcia’s film Mother and Child missed out on a nomination for this year’s Academy Award for best actress. This failure to recognize Bening’s subtle portrayal suggests more than the Academy’s indifference to strong art. It’s a sign of modern Hollywood’s reluctance to value the moral calling implicit in Bening’s character’s penitence. This ethical blindness is encouraged by the sexually insouciant behavior celebrated in many recent films.
Consider the fact that Bening has been nominated for an Oscar for her acting in The Kids Are All Right. (This is written prior to the announcement of the winners.) In that film she portrays a partner in a lesbian-mom couple, one of those supposed “breakthrough” roles that “challenges” middle America. Apparently the Academy could not resist a film that prioritizes politics over spirituality.
Although the contrasting maternal characters she plays in these two very different films bear testimony to the range and taste of Bening’s acting choices, she seems to follow the general train of opinion that prefers politically correct simplicities to moral depth. Bening told a New York One television reporter that she took the Kids role because it was “about a woman desperate to hold her family together”—an admirable goal but, like the film itself, lacking in the nuances and ambivalences of family intimacies. In Mother and Child, director-writer Rodrigo Garcia’s vision of family connections rises to a higher level.
Both films are set in contemporary, progressive California, yet while Kids congratulates popular liberal politics, Mother and Child offers a more personal political perception—that is, social relations with spiritual dimensions. It’s a soulful melodrama whose refinement gets lost in our shrill, faddish film culture that typically overlooks the impulse toward self-criticism and contrition, especially in the realm of sexual behavior. In The Kids Are All Right, the sexual impulse is portrayed, as its title reference to a song by the rock group The Who implies, against a background of permissive sexual license associated with ’60s rock’n’roll. By contrast, Mother and Child roots sexuality in holy convention. The title evokes the sacred image of the Virgin Mary, a genre of religious iconography that fuses the supernatural mysteries of God’s love for humanity with the natural mysteries of a mother’s love for her child.
The central figure in Mother and Child is Karen, played by Bening. She works as a therapist at an old folks’ home where mortality shadows every human choice. The film’s other main characters include Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), orphaned as a child and now a grown-up young woman focused on a legal career, and Lucy (Kerry Washington), a middle-class entrepreneur desperate to become a parent through adoption. As their disparate stories converge, Garcia’s narrative gradually reveals emotional and social connections. He observes what it means to be a woman by focusing on each character’s attempt to become a mother. Elizabeth and Lucy’s personal frustrations are paralleled in their tense family, professional, and sexual relations. As with Karen, their identity revolves around issues of fertility and associated emotions. Motherhood is felt as an extension of their childhood experience; each has a concept of womanliness formed by parental influence (or its lack) in their own lives.
As a storyteller, Garcia recognizes Karen, Elizabeth, and Lucy’s humanity in the inimitable—almost mystical—aspects of their gender that become manifest in each woman’s relationship with men: how Karen reconnects with her teenage lover, Elizabeth’s compulsive sexual conquests, and Lucy’s seductive/intimidating marital habits. These details are different from the identity politics displayed in The Kids Are All Right, where sexual preference is brought up in order merely to question or accuse social conventions, a paltry and now very conventional ploy. In Mother and Child, sexuality is seen as something more profound. Garcia treats it as the means by which people fulfill their human obligation—or offend against it. Lucy coerces her husband into accepting adoption, and Elizabeth casually wrecks a pregnant neighbor’s marriage. These incidents intensify the story beyond typical melodrama, and Garcia’s stark yet luminous visual compositions draw viewers into the turmoil.
Karen’s skepticism derives from an adolescent disaster—her pregnancy and decision to put her child up for adoption—that deranges her idea of female responsibility. Still devastated by her decision and carrying an adult sense of loss, she looks at a new suitor (Jimmy Smits) with a nonbeliever’s mixture of gratitude and befuddlement: “Who are you? Where did you come from?” She’s dealt with ruined romance, maternal disillusionment, and filial disappointment, all of it fluently replicated in the anxieties that rise from caring for her ill mother. A Mexican home attendant, Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo) and her child offer a mirror to the crisis Karen cannot overcome on her own without entering into a painful dance of both lashing out and reaching out for help. When a talisman passes between them—from Karen’s mother to Sofia’s daughter—it acquires a poignancy that suggests the sanctity of a rosary, a continuity of good wishes between mothers and daughters, an intuitive communication that counts blessings and desires.
What goes unarticulated between Karen and her mother finds expression in the generational dynamics of the film’s other adult/child relationships: Lucy’s candor with her own inquisitive mom; the pregnant unwed teenager (Shameeka Epps) who first accepts Lucy’s adoption petition while questioning the devotion of her own mother (Lisa Gay Hamilton); then the self-punishing Elizabeth’s unexpected pregnancy that leads to an encounter with a blind teenage girl.
Unlike pop media’s usual coarsening of human sexuality in programs like MTV’s insidious 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom that reduce pregnancy to reality-TV sensationalism, Garcia bravely combines vulgar habits with sacred perspectives, common behaviors with spiritual aspirations. In Mother and Child the women use a feminist principle—autonomous sexual independence—to assert their social position. But it’s a political reflex with personal consequences: The slightly older Karen becomes bitter toward men, whom she now keeps at a distance. Her effort to recapture a long-lost opportunity, or reverse earlier decisions, reunites her with the teenage lover who impregnated her, but this is futile, an example of the modern desperation that warps sexual interaction and prevents true intimacy.
Filmgoers unfamiliar with Garcia’s earlier work will be surprised by the ways in which Mother and Child grapples with the spiritual complexities of human existence. Garcia’s filmmaking (2004’s Nine Lives, 2003’s Ten Things You Know Just By Looking at Her) is not conventionally religious, but like his father, the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Márquez, he displays amazement at the commonality of human experience. His films are more socially grounded than literary “magical realism.” He is awed by fate, humbled by its universality and puzzling meaning. A remarkable moment in the earlier film Nine Lives features Sissy Spacek playing a woman contemplating adultery who hesitates when, in the midst of the rendezvous, her paramour looks up at the night sky and asks, “Is that the same moon Jesus Christ saw?”
In Mother and Child, Garcia’s female personae make up a community of “new Eves”—a classical image of the Virgin Mary that Pope Pius XII used in his 1954 encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam. There Pius XII draws attention to how Mary sacrifices her “maternal rights and maternal love” for the sake of the greater love of the one who can redeem and create us anew. Although by no means theological in any explicit sense, Mother and Child’s worldly storyline works toward a picture of social unity and social salvation by matter-of-factly illustrating race- and class-mixing and personal sacrifices.
Garcia’s flawed yet yearning characters suggest a larger principle of intimacy and love that redeems original sin, transcending the facile race/class/sex cynicism of our era. His female portraits concentrate on the conscious and unconscious efforts women make to hold the family of mankind together in their personal lives. The climactic revelation of their interconnectedness brings out the inner coherence of the narrative and becomes one of the film’s unexpected glories.
Garcia makes the most of what Pius XII termed “those sentiments of filial reverence which are not ours alone, but which belong to all those who glory in the name of Christian.” He achieves some portion of cinematic greatness as he guides the tormented Karen, desolate Elizabeth, and doubtful Lucy toward a shared mother-and-child reunion. Elizabeth sees her predicament reflected in the figure of a blind teenage girl, Cristi (Simone Lopez). To the blind young girl Elizabeth confesses her pregnancy, and she receives Cristi’s innocent, modern adolescent reply that suggests, if not an absolution, then a benediction: “A person inside another person. It’s like science fiction. It doesn’t know a thing; only its mother’s heartbeat.” A poetic expression firmly grounded in the most primeval human feelings and modern terms, it epitomizes Garcia’s extraordinary spiritual vision.
Armond White, film critic of the New York Press, is chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle.