La Madre Muerta (1993)

Directed by
An important film for me
Reviewed by Simon on 2024-04-04

A burglar breaks into an artist's home shoots her dead when confronted. Her young daughter witnesses the killing. Years later, the burglar encounters the daughter, now mute and developmentally challenged and living in an institute. He thinks she recognises him so decides he has to kill her, but circumstances lead to a kidnapping instead.

LA MADRE MUERTA was a formative film for me, one of the first films I saw (along with Pedro Almodovar's What Have I Done To Deserve This?) that showed that cinema could be as challenging and thought-provoking as literature, an antidote to the bland Hollywood blockbusters I had mostly encountered before. It has lingered with me ever since, though it turns out I remembered basically nothing of the details.

The film is transgressive and laced with comedy so black it is only just recognisable as such by its absurdity. It is difficult to categorise - it has elements of thriller, horror and crime but doesn't really fit any of those labels. Arthouse seems like an appropriately vague term, but the film is too lurid to fit comfortably under it. It perhaps aligns more closely with the stylish exploitation cinema of 1970's Japan.

Ismael is one of cinema's great bastards - truly a terrible person. One can only wonder why his girlfriend stays with him - clearly it is an abusive relationship, and it's not like she is blind to his faults.

The character of Leire is impenetrable, she is badly damaged and it's not clear she has much internal life at all. There are no profound revelations to the contrary, no judgment or retribution. She is a very literal innocent, in stark contrast to Ismail, and perhaps his inability to elicit even condemnation from her ultimately forces him to deliver it himself.

The film doesn't offer a neat closure though, nothing that was broken is made whole again, nothing that was lost is found. The situation is resolved but it's not clear anybody is better or wiser for it. Things are what they are, and maybe it's just naïve of us to think they could be otherwise.