The films of Alexandr Sokurov are often compared to those of his teacher and mentor, Andrei Tarkovsky. While there are stylistic and thematic similarities, there are also significant differences. Both favour understated acting, long takes, and complex sound designs that combine the sounds of the natural world with sparse and evocative music. They’re also ‘spiritual’ filmmakers in the sense that both are concerned with existential questions and a visualisation of the ‘inner’ life. However, where Tarkovsky’s characters seek Grace (acknowledging the existence of an interventionist God), there is no such redemptive certainty in Sokurov’s world. Even at his most pastoral, Sokurov’s spiritual temper is more aligned with a humanist reverence for love, simplicity, endurance, and the liberating wonder of art, which Sokurov frequently celebrates (most profoundly in Russian Ark, 2002) as the life-affirming embodiment of hope and meaning. Of all his films, the one that arguably comes closest to a ‘mystical’ view of existence is Mother and Son. Although the film stops short at theism, it is nevertheless an elegiac hymn to the fragility of being, evoking a kind of ‘non-religious sacredness’.
The film depicts an attentive son caring for his fatally ill mother on her final day of life. They live in a remote house near a meadow close to an isolated coastline, a landscape Sokurov captures with exquisite care. Detached from the rest of the world (apart from the occasional distant train or passing hiker), they talk, she rests, and he carries her around the nearby fields. The film concentrates on the minutiae of their intimacy, taking great care over the subtlest nuances. The occasional moments of conversation are punctuated with elegiac silences, unimportant chat for the most part, but bathed in the generosity of their familiarity. Their tender physicality is one of the most palpable elements in a film where even the most insignificant gesture speaks to the profound beauty of touch. The mother’s illness has been read as a metaphor for the deterioration of Russia, and while this might be consistent with Sokurov’s preoccupations, it’s a rather forced notion in the context of this particular film. There has also been debate about whether Sokurov’s visual style is the result of calculation or inspiration. It seems rather academic to me, but I would argue that intuition drives technique. This is especially evident in Russian Ark, where Sokurov found an ideal form for his ideas. It’s one of his most playful and life-affirming films (despite the sombre warning that frames it), and a forthright expression of his belief in the importance of art and culture.
At just over 70-minutes, Mother and Son is relatively short, but long enough for Sokurov to achieve a wholly satisfying balance between the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual elements that inform this subtle, penetrating elegy. For some the film is too sombre and dour, while others (most famously Nick Cave) are brought to tears by it. Few, however, deny its languid beauty. The ‘painterly’ quality of the images (inspired by the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich) emphasise the existential tone of the film, and while they are indeed very beautiful, they are never merely picturesque. The pensive quality of the dim interiors and brooding landscapes are an inspired visualisation of the inner state of the characters and their acceptance of the inevitability of death. The fleeting glimpse of a boat heading towards the horizon on a vast and endless sea is an enigmatic metaphor for the solitary final journey. Despite the son’s devotion to his mother, her death is an isolating experience for both of them.
The meticulous sound design is an essential element in the film (as it is in all of Sokurov’s work). Natural sounds (thunder, wind, birds, insects, indistinct murmuring) and an ethereal piano-based score form an impressive synergy with Sokurov’s images. Together they convey a muted secular veneration of being, and create a melancholic poetry that alludes to the perpetuation of life in the face of death. Some who have dismissed the film point to these qualities as evidence of Sokurov’s spiritual emptiness, calling the work ‘oppressive in tone’ and ‘oppressive in nature’ due to its apparent repudiation of the divine. But as an atheist, one can hardly expect Sokurov to express the same philosophic viewpoint as Tarkovsky. While Mother and Son is free of the kind of religious tropes that urge us to exalt a Creator, there is ample room for such responses, even if the film itself doesn’t overtly support or encourage them. Regardless of its philosophic specificity, a work of art is always an opportunity for reflection. One may not always be in agreement with an artist, but the potential for dialogue between artist and viewer in a film as sublime and masterful as Mother and Son shames the vacuous nonsense of most movies, let alone the pleading of earnest religious tracts, or even (for that matter) Tarkovsky’s occasional lapses into preaching. It’s interesting to note that one of the most revered ‘religious’ films of all time, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), is not only the work of an atheist, but also an iconoclast! Pasolini was a left-wing homosexual regularly in conflict with Church and State alike, and yet he made arguably the finest portrayal of the Passion ever committed to film. If the Creator is interventionist, it would seem He has a very wry sense of humour.
The earth pervades every frame of Mother and Son, reminding us of our eventual appointment with it. Tarkovsky’s work is also connected to the earth, but in order to reveal the divine. Sokurov, on the other hand, suggests that in a world of spiritual incertitude, all we have for certain is each other, but that alone is precious if not sacred. As the son carries his mother through a landscape suffused with the subdued beauty of decay, they are accompanied by the faint refrain of a barely audible hymn to the silence.