by Phillippe Cahill

Year:  2023

Director:  Patricia Ortega

Release:  July 2024

Running time: 84 minutes

Worth: $18.00
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

Spanish Film Festival

Kiti Mánver, Pepe Quero, Inés Benítez Viñuela, Silvia Acosta, Mari Paz Sayago

… at turns intense, heartfelt and life-affirming, character study, finely observed in extreme close-up.

Celebrated Venezuelan documentarian and filmmaker Patricia Ortega returns with her third feature, the singular and sublime mamacruz, starring Kiti Mánver (Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown) in a revelatory, virtuoso performance. Directed and co-written by Ortega (alongside scriptwriter José Ortuño), mamacruz is an at turns intense, heartfelt and life-affirming, character study, finely observed in extreme close-up.

Bold and affecting, this expertly crafted, laser focused, efficiently scripted film fearlessly tackles female social taboos, from aging to agency, sexuality, visibility, religious and societal gendered repression; but with a deft lightness of touch and compassion that bypasses dourness and ideological didacticism to find the affectionately knowing humour and wider universal truths within our heroine’s journey to self-awareness, self-actualisation and fulfilment.

Soft spoken and reserved, “Mamacruz” (Mánver) as affectionately dubbed by her granddaughter, is a deeply devoted if achingly dissatisfied wife, mother, daughter, occasional skilled seamstress and devout Catholic. Having long prioritised others’ needs over her own, her twilight days are a seemingly unappreciated, never-ending cycle of wifely chores, charity, church and grandchild care, her daughter Carlotta (Silvia Acosta) having left her child behind to pursue dreams of professional artistic fulfilment overseas. With an inner life as repressed and restricted as the impossibly controlling girdle that she ritually forces her body into daily, for mamacruz societal expectations around motherhood, marriage and maternal sacrifice can be just as limiting and oppressive as the domineering huffing of an emotionally withholding husband, the patriarchal oppressions of organised religion, or the undercover community policing of judgmental neighbour sniping and local parishioner gossip.

This drab, repetitive, beige life of drudgery initially threatens to swallow mamacruz whole, as she fades into the background of her cluttered living room, punctuated only by her disinterested husband Eduardo’s (Pepe Quero) snoring and the daily distraction of her favourite romance telenovela soap operas. Until the day her insouciance is unexpectedly ruffled by an accidental encounter with online pornography… Initially shocked, dormant desires perhaps long forgotten or maybe never previously encountered, are soon awakened, with mamacruz quickly spiralling down a rabbit hole of self-discovery and realisation that she’s not quite dead (inside) yet.

It’s a straightforward, predictable narrative, with little by way of plot flourishes, but elevated by expert execution and the storyteller’s fearless, unflinching, intentional gaze. The real action here is interior, with exteriors a mere reflection or expression of the internalised. Hence why the delicately moving dance of soft golden light is so arresting and entrancing as the camera slowly tracks the contours of the subject’s body like a lover’s fingertip, the morning after when a trepidatious mamacruz first explores the newly minted overwhelming fear, confusion and excitement that is her blooming sensuality. It’s also why the human piquancy is so delightful when mamacruz is guiltily discovered on the verge of kissing Jesus on the crucifix in the Sacristy, not just because some of those sculptural representations can be quite thirsty, but also, the poor woman is losing her mind to the thrall of an awakening desire she doesn’t yet understand or control. And it’s the astonishing gaze of a camera that so unblinkingly luxuriates in the undeniable unvarnished beauty of a truly lived in representation of female aging so rarely, if ever seen.

As brilliantly cinematic as the script is, with so much communicated visually rather than explicitly through dialogue, such uncommon restraint requires the film to live or die on the power and authenticity of the central performance. Although ably supported by a delightful ensemble, particularly in the scenes after mamacruz joins a women’s sex therapy class (populated by the sort of charming shorthand archetypes usually seen in quirky British dramedies), nevertheless it’s still Mánver who towers. Her utterly vanity-free performance is a masterclass in the subtleties of effective communication through movement, stillness, body language, facial expression, pauses and silence. Indeed, it’s these silences speaking volumes throughout that gives key climactic scenes of spoken dialogue so much additional power and emotional resonance. In mamacruz’ brave new world, silence, like the light in this film, truly is golden.


Leave a Reply