Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Blu-ray Review: THE DEAD MOTHER

 by Anthony King

To draw the line between arthouse and exploitation.

In writer/director Juanma Bajo Ulloa's crime-thriller The Dead Mother (1993), he and his actors carefully walk along the border of forging a beautiful arthouse jewel and creating a heinous, borderline-inappropriate exploitation film. It takes a confident director and a cast of trusting individuals to accomplish such a feat, and, fortunately, Bajo Ulloa and company do just that.

The film opens with a burglar sneaking through a dark apartment, A woman awakes, spots the thief, and is shot and killed. As the man is escaping back out through the kitchen window he turns to see a young girl staring at him. He raises his gun, and just as he pulls the trigger, the screen turns to black. It's now twenty years later and the burglar-turned-murderer, whose name is Ismael Lopez de Matauko (Karra Elejalde), is now tending bar. He notices a young woman outside the bar accompanying an older woman. Immediately, after making eye contact with the young woman, Matauko realizes this is the little girl he had shot all those years ago. Lopez follows her and learns that the young woman, whose name is Leire (Ana Alvarez), is developmentally disabled with the mental age of a small child and mute because of him, and now lives in a mental hospital. Along with his girlfriend, Maite (Lio), Lopez concludes he must kill Leire before she turns him in.
Maite convinces Lopez to throw the girl in front of a train, but his guilt overrides his maliciousness and instead brings Leire back to his apartment and chains her to a bed. Lopez tells Maite that they can demand a ransom for the girl instead. While keeping Leire hostage, Lopez begins to develop complicated feelings for her. Up to this point the film had been a pretty standard crime movie. When Lopez's empathy becomes too overwhelming for him, the film takes a turn into unhinged dramatic territory. It becomes unlike anything I've ever seen. During the most famous scene of the film, Lopez takes a tube of lipstick and does his face up like a clown, attempting to make Leire laugh. Realizing he can't “fix” her, Lopez struggles between his sexual desires for her, the responsibility he feels in a fatherly way, and his monstrous feelings of wanting to simply get rid of her. His relationship with Maite then becomes strained because of all these feelings he has for Leire. Things come to a head during the third act when Lopez is forced to make a choice.
Karra Elejalde up to this point was mostly known for his comedic talents. These talents come in use in The Dead Mother during a few very effective moments, but mostly Elejalde stretches his dramatic wings. Not unlike Jim Carrey's drastic turn into dramatic roles in The Majestic (2001), or even Man on the Moon (1999), Elejalde showcases his knack for disappearing into the character and delivers a remarkable and unforgettable performance. It's breathtaking how he's able to slowly transform from this monster who doesn't think twice about killing a woman and her daughter into an empathetic caretaker. Ana Alvarez is tasked with the impossibly difficult job of portraying a character with the mental capacity of a small child conveying fear and sadness while having zero dialogue. Whereas Elejalde is able to effectively express his point of view with both words and actions, Alvarez can only use minimal actions. The way the two actors communicate and play off one another is one of the most unique and believable duo performances I've ever seen.
Included with Radiance's beautiful 4K restoration of The Dead Mother is a wonderful director commentary from Juanma Bajo Ulloa that offers great insights in the making of the film, including set designs, location shooting, and his relationships with Elejalde and Alvarez. “The Story of The Dead Mother” is a making-of documentary that includes interviews with Bajo Ulloa, Elejalde, Alvarez, and Lio that cuts together scenes from the movie with director POVs that offer fascinating perspectives most making-of documentaries don't. Also included on the disc is Bajo Ulloa's short film "El reino de Victor" ("Victor's Kingdom"), an interesting (albeit a tad slow at times) take on a fairytale. Exclusive to the limited edition you also get Bingen Mendizabal's elegant score to The Dead Mother on CD.

The Dead Mother is yet another highlight from Radiance. Ripe for discovery, this film is sure to captivate audiences interested in genre-bending storytelling with exceptional performances.

Blu-ray release date: September 19, 2023
112 minutes/1993
2.35:1 (1080p)
PCM Mono (Spanish)
Subtitles: English (SDH)
Region: ABC

Bonus Features:
4K restoration of the film supervised and approved by director Juanma Bajo Ulloa
Uncompressed stereo 2.0 audio
Audio commentary by Bajo Ulloa
“The Story of The Dead Mother”– a documentary on the making of the film featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew (2008, 38 mins)
"El reino de Victor" – Goya Award-winning short film by Bajo Ulloa, restored in 4K (1989, 38 mins)
Gallery of behind-the-scenes and promotional imagery
Trailer
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow
Limited edition booklet featuring new writing on the film by Xavier Aldana Reyes, author of Spanish Gothic: National Identity, Collaboration and Cultural Adaptation; newly translated archival writing by Juanma Bajo Ulloa, co-writer Eduardo Bajo Ulloa; and an appreciation by Nacho Vigalondo
Limited edition soundtrack CD featuring Bingen Mendiz√°bal’s sumptuous score [exclusive to the limited edition]

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