Zama star Lola Dueñas gives an astonishing central performance in Journey to a Mother’s Room.
Naturalistic acting is a mysterious craft. On the one hand, a performer who uses this technique draws on recognisable behaviours. On the other, they channel enough magical touches to entertain. This balancing act is one that many actors can’t manage, and instead fall into hamminess, woodenness or other tells that show the actor behind the role. A masterclass in how to lightly inhabit a character’s skin comes courtesy of Zama star and Pedro Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas in Spanish director Celia Rico Clavellino’s debut feature Journey to a Mother’s Room.
The film is a domestic miniature about the relationship between Estrella and her teenage daughter Leonor (Anna Castillo) as the pair try to forge ways forward after a significant bereavement. Thematically it plays like a Spanish-language Lady Bird and is similarly woven out of well-observed details from the fault lines of family life. Estrella is a softer character than Laurie Metcalf’s caustic Marion, with a gift for taking a split-second before line reads to facially process information in the process creating comic tension: how will she react? Dueñas is well-matched by Castillo as her on-screen daughter. Leonor is a shy and tender homebody torn between an urge to make her way in the world by moving to London and the solace of familiar comforts in small-town Spain.
It is refreshing to see a film that gives its characters working-class jobs which define the rhythms of their days and the nature of their prospects. Castillo has made a scrupulously coherent film ensuring that the material situation of her characters matches their income. Props, costumes and the house, which is the dominant setting, serve to flesh out Estrella. She is a factory worker, well-liked for her smile, with a pragmatism that feels both maternal and economic. Indeed, some of the best pleasures of the film are located in the amplification of passing details. In one scene, a mysterious food item covered in silver foil is given to Leonor. After we discover that Leonor loves ham, when an identical silver foil-wrapped item is handed over we know it is a ham sandwich. Castillo finds ways to develop her film world through what would be throwaway details in a less attentive director’s hands.
As for the ghost that both mother and daughter are trying to elude, his presence is felt not through melodramatic references, but through prosaic reminders: clothes that still haunt a wardrobe, a mobile phone company still trying to make contact. Nothing rings false. Everything is transposed from the the true bureaucratic and practical loose ends left after life ends.
The pressures that drive her characters relate to daily survival yet unlike the Dardenne brothers, whose social realism contains social critiques, Castillo is more interested in bringing to the surface the humanity and humour that can prosper in a loving microcosm. As the film progresses, Estrella’s horizons broaden in small, moving ways. A gentleman caller comes seeking her bolero-making services, she becomes addicted to WhatsApp. Dueñas occupies every inch of a new ground discovered with the hesitant charm of an ingenue, creating a character of an older woman who is also a permanent beginner.
Journey to a Mother’s Room screened at the 2018 San Sebastian Film Festival. For more info visit sansebastianfestival.com
Published 28 Sep 2018
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