Cast: Asia Argento, Adam James, Moran Atias, Udo Kier
Extras: Featurette, Interview, Trailers
In 1977, Dario Argento directed "Suspiria, " the first film in what became known as the "Three Mothers" trilogy that continued with "Inferno" in 1980, leaving fans waiting nearly 30 years for the final chapter. That chapter has finally arrived with "Mother of Tears." Connected only marginally through plot, the three films are more prominently linked by their themes of witchcraft, each film pitting a youthful heroine against a powerful witch intent on destroying the world. Unfortunately, Argento's rank as one of the world's great horror directors has dropped slightly over the last two decades as the films produced during that period have failed to live up to the intensity or artistry of his earlier works, making "Mother of Tears" his most eagerly anticipated movie in quite a long time. Of all of his recent work, it is the one that will be held under the closest scrutiny because it is so directly tied to two of his most acclaimed films.
In Rome, an ancient urn is unearthed in a church cemetery. Fearing that the strange symbols imprinted on it may have occult symbolism, the priest sends it to a museum of ancient art to be examined. His suspicions turn out to be true when the urn is opened, unleashing a dark force that spreads across the city, inspiring a breakout of heinous violence all over Rome (not to mention leaving one poor museum worker truly messed up). Art student Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) catches sight of the evil creatures who claim the contents of the urn and soon becomes their target. A level-headed young woman, she refuses to believe that what she has seen has anything to do with the supernatural, but when her boyfriend's son is kidnapped and she begins to hear strange voices, she is forced to acknowledge that what is happening goes beyond any rational explanation.
As she investigates the origins of this evil power, Sarah learns that it is the work of three powerful witches known as the Three Mothers. Only one remains living, the Mother of Tears, but she is the most powerful of the three, and the opening of the urn has restored her long-dormant powers. But Sarah also learns that she has a hidden magic herself, and she must use it to conquer the newly rejuvenated witch before her power stretches across the world. Complicating matters further, the police are also after Sarah, believing that she is responsible for the brutal murder of her co-worker at the museum. With no one left to help her, she must rely on her own instinct and the advice of her long-dead mother who relays her knowledge of white magic in several ghostly appearances.
Although it has been 28 years since "Inferno" was released, Dario Argento manages to include brief references to it and "Suspiria" to fully tie the three films together. Having not seen "Inferno" myself, I can say that "Mother of Tears" works quite well on its own as a standalone film, although it undoubtedly takes on more significance when viewed as the continuation of the previous two works. It is interesting to compare the first and last entries in the trilogy, however, to see how it has been developed over time. Much like George Romero's ongoing "Living Dead" series, the "Three Mothers" trilogy has gone from the rather contained malevolence of the ballet school in "Suspiria" to a widespread, apocalyptic vision in the final chapter. Unlike Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) in the first film, Sarah Mandy must not only protect herself but act as a kind of savior to the world.
Argento seems quite determined to make "Mother of Tears" the film that his fans have been waiting so long for. The credits list reads like a veritable who's who of Argento collaborators, including his daughter Asia, actors Udo Kier, Daria Nicolodi (Asia's real-life and on-screen mother), Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, composer Claudio Simonetti, and producer Claudio Argento (the director's brother). Indeed, the film contains several touchstones of Argento's early work, particularly in the violent scenes. The first murder sequence plays like a companion piece to the celebrated first murder in "Suspiria," with only brief glimpses of the arms and eyes of the otherwise unseen killers who maniacally mutilate the victim with breakneck speed. This sequence also utilizes an expressive use of color, something that becomes less emphasized as the film devolves into a blacker and bleaker atmosphere. Nods to Hitchcock are also noticeable, particularly in Sarah's constant dodging of both the main villains and the police.
For all of its clever connections with the previous two films in the trilogy, however, the real question is does the film work? I say it does, although not at all on the level of "Suspiria." That film was a cohesive masterpiece of rich production design, stylized violence, dizzying music, and fantastical exoticism. "Mother of Tears" is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. I am sad to say that its main problem lies in the villain herself. As third witch Mater Lachrymarum, Moran Atias simply has no real menace or nuance. The character is supposed to be much younger and more beautiful than the witches of the previous films, but this actually lessens her effectiveness. She lacks the forceful presence that Alida Valli and Joan Bennett displayed in "Suspiria," and her frequent nudity does more to objectify her than give her any sense of power. Although there are some truly horrible things happening around Sarah, it is difficult to associate them with Mater Lachrymarum because she does not project the appropriate level of monstrosity, no matter what we see her do.
Another issue lies in the film's sometimes mediocre or sloppy visual and stunt effects. While Argento has rarely striven for realism, his often cartoonish violence usually fits well with his highly stylized aesthetic. Here, it clashes with the more realistic settings, no longer seeming deliberate but just cheap. In one troubling scene, a woman throws her baby to his death from a bridge. When the doll that unconvincingly takes the plunge for the child hits against the side of the bridge, one of its arms pops out! Many of the CGI shots are equally unimpressive, not the least of which are the frequent appearances of the ghost of Sarah's mother. The effects are reminiscent of those found in low-budget TV movies, inspiring unintentional laughter.
Where the film succeeds is in Argento's creation of a nightmarish vision of a looming apocalypse. The story has all the logic of a feverish dream as random acts of violence take place in broad daylight and hellish minions (including a watchful monkey) creep out of every corner with omnipresent ease. Sarah's journey to destroy the final Mother is one filled with isolation as those she trusts are either swiftly murdered or enemies in sheep's clothing. The film is quite dark, visually, which intensifies the feeling of doom so heavily present. Even the violence, extreme though it is, conveys a more depressing mood than we usually expect from Argento. It appears that he has significantly grown out of his grim fairy tales to capture terrors of greater magnitude while maintaining his visual style and keen eye for graphic carnage.
Genius Products has presented the film in its unrated version in an excellent transfer. Displayed at 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture is crisp and clear with vivid color saturation, rich black levels, and fine contrast. Skin tones look natural throughout, and there are no visible artifacts.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack nicely distributes the audio around the front and rear speakers, which is highly effective during the action scenes, making us feel as though we are right in the middle of them. The audio is clear, with good presentation of voices and music, never too harsh but powerful when need be. English and Spanish subtitles are available.
The first supplemental feature is the 33-minute "The Making of Mother of Tears." Featuring lots of behind-the-scenes footage as well as footage taken from the Rome Film Festival (on the Black Carpet, no less), this featurette is interesting if a bit meandering. Interviews with Dario and Asia Argento, some crew members, and a few fans and critics at the festival highlight this feature, which is mostly in Italian with removable English subtitles.
Next up is an eight-minute conversation with the director. Argento discusses this film and the others in the trilogy, where he got the idea for the Three Mothers, and where he might go in the future now that it is completed. There is some good information in this brief spot. Unfortunately, Argento speaks English throughout, something he is not especially good at, and he is often difficult to understand. I had to apply the English closed-captions in order to get through this.
A U.S. theatrical trailer and Italian teaser round out the special features. It's a fairly small offering, but appreciated nonetheless.
The final entry of the "Three Mothers" trilogy is perhaps not quite the return to form that we have been waiting for, but Argento is generally successful in wrapping it up. It does recall many of the elements of his early work while staking out new territory with its apocalyptic story. "Mother of Tears" is not flawless, and it does not sustain its vision all the way through in the manner of "Suspiria," but Argento's nightmare vision is vivid enough to overcome the weaker aspects and make this a commendable, if not entirely satisfying, closing to his supernatural trilogy.