Mother of Tears made Judge Gordon Sullivan cry...and not in a good way.
What you see does not exist. What you cannot see is truth.
It's a hard lesson to learn, so hard that even luminaries like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola had trouble with it: returning to a beloved franchise after a prolonged absence invites heartbreak. It took Dario Argento almost three decades to finish the trilogy he began with Suspiria in 1977, and there was almost that much time between Mother of Tears and the previous film in the series, Inferno. Since then, Argento has taken a lot of flak for some substandard projects, including an adaptation of Phantom of the Opera and an odd retelling of Rear Window in Do You Like Hitchcock?. Expectations for the final Three Mothers film obviously run high, but it's my sad duty to report that Mother of Tears doesn't live up to the high standards of Argento's classic. Taken on its own merits, however, the film has a few charms which save it from total failure.
Facts of the Case
During a routine excavation in a church graveyard, a construction crew uncovers a casket from the early 1800s with a box chained to it. Recognizing the occult markings on the box, the priest in charge of the digging sends it to a museum in Rome for authentication. There it falls into the hands of American (!?!) Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento, Scarlet Diva). She and a colleague open the box to find three statues and a ceremonial shirt. While Sarah goes to retrieve some books, a group of mysterious creatures attack her colleague and steal the contents of the box. Meanwhile, Rome is plunged into a panic, with rampant violence in the streets. Sarah has to unravel the secrets of the Three Mothers to stop the Mother of Tears from bringing about the second fall of Rome and a new age of witchcraft.
The best of Dario Argento's films operate with a delicious perversity. Sometimes, it's a fetishistic approach to the act of killing. Other times it's a voyeuristic obsession with sex. Still other times it's a cold detachment from murder. This perversity, however, is not simply for titillation. Argento's best work is also about the act of seeing, and by extension a critique of cinema. All of that seems to have been abandoned for Mother of Tears. It is, by comparison, one of Argento's most tame films. Yes, there are some aspects of the film that could be called "perverse" (the rampant nudity, lesbianism, and occult rituals), but none of it has the fire of Argento's other work. It is reduced to perversity for the sake of perversity. While there's nothing wrong with that per se, it's tremendously disappointing coming from the director of Suspiria and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Even if you can forgive its lackluster ideological credentials, the film fails to satisfy on a visceral level either. I was (generally) with the film until the last half hour. There was some good gore and some choice nudity, and although it wasn't classic Argento it was kind of fun. Then the film started to drag, horribly. The nadir came when Sarah wanders around the bowels of the home of the Mother of Tears. In Suspiria, Argento kept this kind of hallway walking scene interesting with novel colors and composition. In Mother of Tears, it's an interminable slog through the horror movie cliché of the heroine wandering the house. When the final confrontation comes, it's over too quickly, which makes the previously tedious scenes even more worthless since they built up to an unsatisfying conclusion.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's not all bad, however. If you approach The Three Mothers on its own and sit through (or fast-forward through) the tedious ending, the film offers some satisfying moments.
On this Unrated Edition, Argento did not skimp on the gore. Various tortures include a screw device that opens the mouth up in gruesome ways, a cleaver to the face, a spear to the vagina, and more throat-slittings than I could count. Most of these effects are accomplished with a minimum of CGI fuss, which is always preferable where blood is concerned. I also give credit to Argento for one of my favorite horror film scenes of late. To show the chaos of Rome, Argento stages a scene where a mother drops her young child off a bridge. It's both ridiculous and decadent as his camera follows the tyke's descent to the water.
While gore hounds are sure to be satisfied by the red stuff on display, fans of fine Italian females are sure to be pleased as well. There's rampant nudity, most of it in a ritual context. We also get a shower scene with Asia Argento and a number of lesbian lip locks. I wouldn't recommend the film strictly on the basis of its nudity, but I'm sure it will entice a number of fence-sitting viewers.
Before the rather tedious climax, the film is pretty crazy. There's a screeching monkey whose presence is never really explained, a bunch of goth-punk witches running around Rome, the aforementioned lesbians and gore, as well as an appearance from Udo Kier. Looking like the world's most hopped-up priest, Udo shakes his way through his scene as a palsied occultist. While none of this raises the film to the level of Suspiria, if the film had gone out with more style I would have no hesitation recommending the film as a fine example of late-era Argento. However, the finale squanders whatever goodwill the previous aspects had generated.
This DVD from Dimension Extreme does the film some justice. The film is (unsurprisingly) very dark, and the video transfer effortlessly handles Argento's flair for the camera. Although this is not the best score for an Argento film, the DVD's audio strikes a fine balance between the soundtrack and the dialogue.
While Argento has never received the Criterion treatment (*hint* *hint* Criterion), a number of his films have been given pretty lavish releases. Not so with Mother of Tears. We get a pretty standard "making of" and a fairly short interview with Argento. I'm somewhat apprehensive, since he mentions returning to the Three Mothers in another film. Hopefully he'll return to the style of his classics for his next foray in this world.
I have tremendously mixed feelings about Mother of Tears. I did my best to approach it without reference to the previous films in the trilogy, and was satisfied with the film until its ending. Although the first two thirds of the film aren't classic Argento, they provide a satisfying mix of atmosphere and gore. However, all that gets washed away by a boring ending that doesn't do the filmmaker justice. Because of the strong presentation on the film, I recommend a rental to Argento fans. If you like it, the disc is an easy purchase; otherwise, you've saved yourself some cash.
Dario Argento is guilty of ruining a good film with a bad ending.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
• "The Making of Mother of Tears"
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