One way to characterise the Russian auteur Aleksander Sokurov is to call his approach to filmmaking ‘painterly.’ This is indeed evident in his almost entire body of work. Apart from the cinematography that often evokes Caspar Friedrich’s paintings (and certainly many more), Sokurov’s frequent use of a Chinese paintbrush to add layers of fog on the film negatives reinforces such characterisation. One of his preoccupations as a filmmaker, it seems, is to translate the pictorial traditions into film language.
However, that is not to suggest that Sokurov sees cinema as something akin to ‘motion paintings.’ Surely, his pictorial approach is a predominant force in his films, but there is something so quintessentially cinematic about them. Perhaps his 1996 feature Mother and Son, which further solidified Sokurov’s reputation in the global arthouse circle, is the prime example of (though I do not like this term at all) ‘pure cinema’ perfectly infused with his painterly sensibility.
The thoughtfully-composed, static visuals in Mother and Son instantly conjure up several household names in the Western art: Caspar Friedrich (as mentioned earlier), J. W. Turner, Adrian Ludwig Richter, etc. From its beginning to end, not a single shot in the film is less than breathtaking. Only the very best work of Misoguchi Kenji, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and Godard’s Passion can match the intensity of its imagery. It would be hard not to be impressed by Sokurov’s vision. Nevertheless, to marvel at only its painterly beauty is to merely scratch the surface, for the film manages to be much more than a series of tableau vivants.
Mother and Son tells a simple story about a dying mother and her son in an intricately constructed form. I briefly touched upon the static cinematography in the movie earlier on. This obviously has to with the minimal action and the camera movements in the shots. In addition to that, visually, Mother and Son is a film in which the sense of time and space has evaporated. Sokurov seems to see the frame ‘literally’ as a flat canvas. Though he borrows heavily from the German romanticism, he is really interested in creating pre-Renaissance icon paintings that can only exist in flat, two dimensional space. The lack of perspective eliminates the sense of space in these images; where there is no space exists no passage of time.
Yet, in sound, Mother and Son is constantly on the move. The natural sound in the film, especially that of wind blowing, reminds us that cinematograph cannot avoid the passage of time. The occasional use of music, in many ways, is the nail in the coffin of the depthless images that want to stop the clock, thereby struggling to overcome mortality. A strange, but fascinating tension between the film’s image and sound permeates throughout the film. It’s as if the storm of sound incessantly propels the image towards a cliff edge to which its back is turned.
One scene stands out in particular. The mother and the son stand still on a hill. They lean on thin trees, looking at a golden meadow below. In the reverse shot, Sokurov shows us the wind gently blowing over the grass. This is a lovely shot, and also feels unusually vibrant for a picture that is otherwise mostly composed of static images. At the same time, however, it’s an incredibly poignant moment in which all the efforts to ‘freeze time’ in the film, at least in the visual terms, prove to be futile. Like with wind, every attempt to grasp time is an aching reminder of its impossibility. And our dreaded expectation of the mother’s death is mercilessly confirmed in the scene.
I simply do not know of a more profound mediation on death in cinema than Mother and Son. Sokurov’s unique form not only contemplates mortality, but also embodies death itself. In just under 73 minutes, Sokurov gives an answer to one of cinema’s most perplexing ethical and metaphysical issue regarding the representation of death on film. The strange blend of the romantic landscape painting and religious art paints a scene from the universal human struggle to cope with death in an ‘iconic’ fashion. The juxtaposition with the ‘lively’ natural sound amplifies the deeply moving pathos presented in the images. And together, the image and the sound make this movie an eerily sublime experience as a whole.