Back in the late 1990s, this amazingly delicate, barely hour-long fable was the work that brought writer-director Aleksandr Sokurov to international prominence, somewhat against the odds. So fragile it seemed it might not survive export, so meek and withdrawn it's a marvel it could ask anyone to pay for the privilege of seeing it, Mother and Son had the distinction of being like nothing else around at the time of James Cameron's Titanic: in the face of such all-conquering commercialism, it seemed like a remnant of long-lost High Art Cinema, rescued from the back of some Russian state archive. As with all of Sokurov's films up to 2005's The Sun, character and plot - here, a young man and his dying mother spend their last days together in a house in a forest close to the coast - prove secondary to look and ambience. With the image stretched disconcertingly tight over the screen, like skin or (perhaps more apt) canvas, Sokurov stages painterly tableaux: ravishing landscapes as the boy carries his mother through the woods in his arms, a deathbed pietà with the figures reversed as the son holds the ailing woman who gave life to him. On the soundtrack, the wind rustling the trees rhymes with the mother's laboured breathing, and the whistles of a passing steam train: it's a film of last gasps. What little dialogue we hear is murmuring, first of the past, then of the afterlife; we are, I think, meant to infer that the father, the third point of this triangle, has already passed on. The temptation in writing about Mother and Son is to describe what happens at the expense of hazarding a guess at what it means or an opinion on whether or not it works. Certainly Sokurov succeeds in establishing an uncommon intimacy between these two figures, and there's a langorous intensity about their motions. But as befits a film paying particular attention to the qualities of light, the whole falls somewhere between opaque and diffuse. Remarkable as it is, Mother and Son belongs to that school of cinema that wants to be something else (which is to say anything but) - portraiture, physical theatre, a museum piece - an aspiration that will strike you as admirable or antithetical, depending on your position on such matters. A spiritual sequel, Father and Son, followed in 2004: slightly more approachable and hands-on, where this original is insistently hands-off.
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