Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mother of George (2013)

Mother of George makes lots of intelligent observations, the greatest of which seems to be in the way it equates the family drama with the psychological drama. Andrew Dosunmu's film is at its core about culture and family, and as a result the characters cannot escape prickly situations like they can with mere friends or acquaintances. They cannot walk away, but are rather forced to assemble and engage in a kind of communion of hearts and spirits that only blood ties can achieve. The brilliant feat of the film is the way it shows how this miracle of family interaction is completely undermined by secrets and guilt. Cut to the chase: a Nigerian couple in Brooklyn, Ayodele (Isaach de Bankole) and Adenike (Danai Gurira) are married, and at the wedding party, which in its lavish and ritualistic design is almost like a ceremony itself, the newly-weds are given fertility beads and the promise of children (and even what the child is to be named, hence the film's title) by Ayodele's mother, Ma Ayo. Move ahead into the first months of the marriage, and there's still no sign of a baby. The film, which began as a peaceful and lovely look at early marital bliss becomes one marred by a sense of stress and unease. Adenike consults Ma Ayo, whose solution involves superstitious methods, and then a doctor, who might actually have a medical solution except that Ayodele refuses to be tested. Such friction presents us with a wonderful look at the way an intense reliance on culture and tradition, which includes copious pride and stubbornness, comes into conflict with the real world and the deficiencies of nature.

The ultimate solution turns into the ultimate problem: Adenike consults Ma Ayo for advice and is advised to have the child with Ayodele's brother, Biyi. "All the woman do it," she says, which is a terrible rationale, by the way, and her including the fact that "it's the same blood" doesn't help matters much either. But she insists that Adenike do this to keep the family together, and though her daughter-in-law is naturally shocked at the proposition, she ultimately complies due to the insistent pressure that Ma Ayo has been putting on her. And after giving this impetuous advice, Ma Ayo, it might be said, has earned a spot on the cinema's most troublesome mother list. As a side note, I'm not quite sure though whether this is a common Nigerian practice or not. Ma Ayo later says in the film that a child "belongs to us all" and that "it does not matter who the father is." If this is a reflection on a certain Nigerian sensibility, then the greatest conflict in Mother of George must be about custom and community versus American individuality. Anyway, the brother reluctantly concedes to Adenike's request, and sure enough, in a short time Ayodele receives word that he's going to be a father. The joy that defined the first third of the film returns. The family celebrates the fertile blessing bestowed on Ayodele and and Adenkike, only this time we can read into the minds of the three characters who know and are responsible for this dark secret and sense their guilt and anxiety. 

Dosunmu brings out this hidden stress in several terrific and perceptive ways, such as when Biyi first learns that Adenkike is pregnant. We see him and his wife (that he also is married doubles his sense of guilt and remorse) on the street. She gets a phone call from Adenkike and eagerly relates the news to Biyi while still on the phone. Dosunmu then cuts from a long shot of them on the street (just another couple) to a more intimate medium shot that employs the smartest use of slow motion in any recent film I can recall. We see Biyi's enter screen left, walking down the street, the background a striking brick wall painted blue. She's on the phone, laughing and smiling, and then once she exits the frame we see Biyi walk across. He's isolated, both literally in the shot and in his relationship to his wife due to his sin and the endless lies that he knows will come along with it. The shot itself is striking. The blue wall, juxtaposed with Biyi's white shirt and black skin makes for a visually beautiful, painterly image. Because it's a medium shot and the camera is static, there's little time between Biyi's entering and exiting of the frame. Thus, Dosunmu's use of slow motion does not just serve an emotional purpose, but also a practical one. We are able to see Biyi's troubled face longer on screen, to sense the emotions running through his mind, and thus feel something of what he's going through. 

It's peace of the mind or peace of the home. That's the ultimate conflict in the film. Without the child, the home, the literal atmosphere, will experience unrest and frustration. Adenkike's solution to bring peace to the home, however, brings so much anxiety that she has to withhold from everyone around her that she wonders if this external peace she's brought to the home is worth it. Revealing the truth to her husband would disrupt the home again, but dammit she'd feel a whole lot better doing it.

Mother of George is a great example of moral filmmaking, and it's also just a great example of filmmaking as craft. The aforementioned slow-mo shot of Biyi is just one of countless gorgeous compositions Donsunmu cooks up with cinematographer Bradford Young ( who for my money is one of the great young DPs out there), production designer Lucio Seixas, and costume designer Mobolaji Dawodu. The costumes, especially worn by Adenkike, are beautiful and full of bright colors, which juxtaposed with her rich dark skin create images that stick in the mind, that last. Young manages to create one masterful composition after another, the chiaroscuro of his images bursting with texture and palpability. His camera has a great way of hiding partially behind objects like walls or cars and simply observe action (we feel we're almost prying in on the truly intimate details of the lives of strangers). The effect of this gives the film a sense of urban realism, yet it also allows Donsunmu andYoung to play around with creating the perfect shot in which color, light, and the black skin become complementary to each other. Few films in recent years have produced as many images that look like paintings any wall would be lucky to have. 

Could one accuse Donsunmu's style of being self-consciously arty? Sure, but the argument wouldn't go very far. First off, to accuse this film of being arty is really almost to accuse the Nigerian culture itself of being arty. The world Donsunmu creates is slow and full of so much color that it often seems separate from reality. But is this not a film about a certain culture that is trying to maintain its customs around a diverse and changing world? Donsunmu is embracing this tradition, and part of the way he does that is to give us a world that seems wrapped in the culture's unique look and separate from the American society that surrounds it. And yet ultimately he realizes, both in the film's morality and in that great final shot (which I won't spoil), that to cling too firmly to a rapidly changing world yields negative circumstances. 

Mother of George is a complex box of riches. It's the sort of movie that's only fully satisfying when the viewer gives it their full attention-not just to the thorny moral issues of the narrative, but to the painstakingly crafted visual detail. The characters are as richly and memorably designed as their costumes, the actors as nuanced as the shots in which they're framed. Donsunmu's voice is clear yet never forceful, never patronizing. This is moral filmmaking that leads by example, not dogma. As a result, people shouldn't just want to see it; they should feel responsible to. 

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