The opening minutes of director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Madre are a marvel of quick-ratcheting tension, as a pleasant domestic scene in a sunny apartment transforms into a vice of emotional stress over the course of a phone call. Filmed in one shot, the camera winds its way around Elena (Marta Nieto) and her mother (Blanca Apilánez) as Elena receives a call from her 6-year-old son who’s on vacation with his father, Elena’s ex-husband. The boy reveals that he’s alone on a beach and doesn’t know where his father has gone. Alarm twitches on Elena’s face and barbs her voice even as she tries to remain calm. The boy has no idea which beach he’s on, or even whether it’s in France or Spain. Beeps on the line indicate that his phone battery is dying. And, he says, a strange man is walking towards him. “Run!” Elena blurts, finally snapping, but the line goes dead.

It’s a brutally effective opening, heightened by the camera’s constant prowling and refusal to cut away as Elena’s expression registers the dawning of mortal terror while struggling to keep her cool. As a standalone scene, Madre was nominated for an Oscar in the Live Action Short category in 2018. The subsequent 128-minute feature film, written by Isabel Peña with Sorogoyen, springboards to the next chapter in the story with the shocking title card “10 years later,” where an extended panning shot of a wide and desolate beach shows Elena as a solitary figure pacing along the sand.

Another kind of movie might focus on a revenge scenario with Elena tracking down the kidnapper and reuniting with her son. But Madre takes a different and thornier tack, and the psychic trauma of that opening scene sets the tone for a gradual slide into some truly uncomfortable and thought-provoking territory. Elena, walking alone on the beach, spots a group of high school kids running along the sand, and one boy in particular grabs her attention. The boy, Jean (Jules Porier), looks about 16, lanky and shaggy-haired, with delicate features that resemble her own. She fixates on him, shadowing him to the suburban home where he lives with his family. She clearly imagines that this boy might be her own vanished son, but he mistakes her interest as something entirely different. Cornering her in the seaside cafe where she works, he flexes his teenage confidence by flirting with her and asking for her phone number.

Thus, the film splits into a multifaceted exploration of love, longing, jealousy and grief. Nieto’s marvel of a performance keeps Elena’s initial trauma palpable beneath the surface even as she puts on a brave face. Her sidelong glances at Jules reveal the depth of her yearning to reunite with her lost son while he’s still a boy — a yearning which looks like desire to the inexperienced but adventurous teenager. Her boyfriend (Alex Brendemühl) is baffled by and jealous of her seeming obsession, and yet for most of the film neither of them acknowledges the improbability that Jean could be her son; he’s the middle child in a family that only recently relocated to the seaside town from Paris. She seems to understand this, and yet rational calculation can’t touch her need to find some kind of succor in the borderline-inappropriate relationship.

Never quite going where one might expect, Madre keeps its characters in constant motion in relation to one another, with Elena’s unspoken grief and fierce yearning for closure at the center. Marta Nieto’s silent scream of a performance earned a well-deserved raft of European acting awards for both the short film and the feature. The long takes, intercut with fraught close-ups, accentuate the tension that still lingers from that harrowing opening scene, putting the viewer in Elena’s skin: longing for a happy ending, knowing that it surely won’t happen, but grasping for morsels of hope along the way.

Never quite going where one might expect, Madre keeps its characters in constant motion in relation to one another.
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