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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

An earlier version of this review can be found here.


It's one thing to watch Mother of Tears, Dario Argento's 2007 conclusion to his Three Mothers trilogy, with some distance between yourself, and Suspiria and Inferno, and understand in a general way why it is not as good as they are; but when you watch all three right in a row, Mother of Tears is like getting slapped in the face with a sock full of fish guts. This is not, really, all that shocking - for as anyone enough of a fan of Argento to seek out and watch Mother of Tears already knows, the entire experience of the director's filmography after his last good film, 1987's Opera, is like getting slapped in the face with one kind of wet, smelly substance or another, over and over again, in new and increasingly un-exciting ways ("Jenifer", his first contribution to the TV series Masters of Horror, sidesteps this general descent into awfulness, and The Stendhal Syndrome has its defenders, though I have not myself seen it).

In fact, for all that Mother of Tears is a terrible, disappointing follow-up to one masterpiece and one damn fine horror movie - far more than I recalled - that's not the worst of it. The worst is that it's a straight-up bad movie, on its on terms, forget who directed it and forget that it was the long-awaited culmination of a franchise. Despite a handful of moments that absolutely can't help but work - a woman, gripped by an unknown and unseen force, throwing her baby off of a bridge, depicted in a horrifyingly casual handful of shots, or some of the more elliptically-shot gore scenes, of which there are many more in this film than in the others of the trilogy - it's poor filmmaking, plain and simple. Not just because we expect more of Dario Argento, but because we expect more of people who get paid good money to make movies.

The film's plot is considerably more logical than Suspiria or Inferno, though still full enough of gaps, holes, and unexpected jumps that we can rest assured that we're in the comforting arms of Italian genre cinema: in brief, an archaeological dig sponsored by the Catholic church has found an ancient box containing several artificacts, which they send to a museum of antiquities in Rome; there it is studied by Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento), the third "Sarah/Sara" in the trilogy, and the first who does not end up serving as expendable meat; but opening the box and studying its contents - statues, a cloak, a dagger - serve to awaken the power of the final member of the Three Mothers, the witch sisters who have done so much to cause misery to humanity for centuries. And when Mater Lachrymarum (Moran Atias) decides to assert her terrible powers, things go real bad: a wave of suicides sweep Rome, and several people close to Sarah are killed in diabolically violent ways. Eventually, Sarah meets Marta (Valeria Cavalli), a white witch who can start to fill in some of the details of what the hell is happening: it turns out that Sarah is herself the daughter of a powerful white witch Elisa (Daria Nicolodi, Asia Argento's mother), and Lachrymarum has been focused on killing her since she is the only person who can stop the black witch's terror.

That is, mind you, taking a lot of the work out of it. For the most part, the film consists of Sarah doing one thing, followed by a lengthy sequence of crazy magic happening and people dying as a result, and nearly all of the actual story occurs in a handful of scenes where exposition is dumped on us by a friendly, menacing alchemist (Philippe Leroy), who retells the story of architect/scientist Varelli, who built the homes of the Three Mothers and wrote a book about it; you may remember this book as a major plot point in Inferno, and unlucky for you if that's the case, because the backstory for Varelli provided in that movie is quite a bit different from the backstory provided in Mother of Tears.

Anyway, same old story: an Argento movie with a plot that isn't, strung along a series of visually aggressive setpieces. Except that the Argento of Mother of Tears had long since lost the talents to make his horrifying imagery look as hallucinatory and rich as in his glory days, and "visually aggressive" had, by 2007, come to mean "pointlessly disgusting" in the director's output. Sure enough, Mother of Tears more than makes up in viscera what it lacks in imagination, but only the most rabid gorehound would consider that a trade-up; and if the film is not so unpleasant as some of Argento's other late work, that leaves us with a whole lot of room to be rather unpleasant, indeed.

And when that is married to the slapdash filmmaking on display through pretty much the entire film, particularly in the areas of music (Claudio Simonetti's score has the muzaky quality of an Asylum film) and acting (Asia Argento, whom I typically adore even though she is sort of terrible, is on her worst behavior here, acting with the disjointed, inarticulate stiffness of a cheap porn star), the result is a movie that feels grubby and bad: mean without any sort of aesthetic uplift, and vicious without being in the least bit scary, and incoherent with the poetics of Suspiria or a half-dozen other Argentos. It traffics in exploitation - there's a crazy amount of nudity, with Mater Lachrymarum herself almost unnaturally excited to show off her millennia-old boob job - without the sense of playfulness that would make the exploitation go down easier. When I first visited this movie, in a far less angry review, I suggested it resembled a parody of Argento, and now I must reconsider that: this is no parody, it's a goddamn travesty.

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