Review by Sean Boelman
The narrative debut of Guatemalan director César Díaz (who worked as editor on acclaimed films from the country such as Ixcanul), Our Mothers is a dense and riveting drama. An intensely personal evaluation of the consequences of war, this movie tackles a little-discussed but urgent issue.
Set in the aftermath of the civil war in Guatemala, the film follows a cultural anthropologist who is tasked with finding and identifying the missing and dead to present evidence in genocide trials, when a case comes across his desk that may have a connection to his own lost father. Even though the movie presents itself under the guise of a procedural drama, it is actually a harrowing character study.
There are plenty of films that explore the consequences of some of the bigger wars that dominate history books, but few that address these comparatively localized conflicts that have just as significant of an impact on their people. Díaz’s message with this movie is that war, in any situation, has a human consequence.
Díaz does a very good job of building his characters in a compelling way. The protagonist’s arc is simple but effective, tapping into the emotions about parents that unite us all. However, perhaps more interesting is what Díaz does with his supporting characters, which represent the voice of Guatemala as a whole.
Although the film’s short runtime does prevent it from ever meandering, it also holds it back from having the depth with which it could have explored some of the individual stories in more depth. The single most impactful moment in the movie is a testimony given by a woman who lost her loved one to the war, and it would have been impactful to see more of this.
The actors all do a very good job in their roles. Lead actors Armando Espitia and Emma Dib are both professionals, and they bring a lot of emotion to their characters. What is more interesting, though, is that Díaz used nonprofessional actors for his background roles. This gives the film an even greater feeling of authenticity.
On a technical level, Díaz’s movie is simple, but effective. There are some gorgeous shots, but the focus of the film is not on the visuals, but rather, the core emotion of the script. Minimal cuts and long takes allow the movie to have slow yet deliberate pacing that goes a long way in making the story hit harder.
Our Mothers isn’t a perfect movie, but as its director’s narrative debut, it shows a lot of promise. This is certainly one of the most emotionally affecting films audiences will see this year, and that is thanks to Díaz’s unique perspective.
Our Mothers screens online in partnership with indie theaters beginning May 1. A list of participating locations can be found here.