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Friday, October 06, 2017, 11:57
The center cannot hold
By Elizabeth Kerr
Friday, October 06, 2017, 11:57 By Elizabeth Kerr

Mother! Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. USA, 122 minutes, III. Opens Oct 5.

The world seems to be collapsing: Superstorms are yearly, basic rights are under attack, the rich stay rich and the poor get poorer. Or at least that’s how it appears to directors Darren Aronofsky and Stefano Sollima, each attacking the world’s ills with their own special charms. In Aronofsky’s case it’s a typically fetishized and wholly pretentious form of female agony as allegory; less a heavy-handed mixed metaphor than one administered with a leaden cudgel. Sollima, on the other hand, goes with a bleak, nihilistic, genre thriller that it utterly free of good guys. 

Mother! is straightforward enough. A poet with writer’s block, Him (Javier Bardem), struggles with his art while his wife, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence, out of her depth), spends her days restoring their Gothic farmhouse. Soon, a couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) and their two sons invade their solitude with a family squabble. Things get worse when Mother gets pregnant, and Him, the poet, finds himself with a bestseller and thousands of devoted fans at the door. Cue the shrieking descent into madness and murder — with a final act of savagery for the ages. 

As artistic, religious or environmental allegories go, Mother! is a muddled mess that can’t decide on which of its many messages it wants to convey. All the parts for your interpretation of choice are there (detailing them would ruin the “fun”), but the imagery often conflicts with or negates itself, as Aronofsky, in his rush to shock, has neglected connective logic. The hype around the film has suggested there are only two ways to react to it: revulsion or elation. No one wants to admit apathy, but that’s a valid option too. Aronofsky has pulled this kind of outré stunt before, and it’s getting tired, no matter how sincere his message may be. And besides there’s only so many times you can watch a genius auteur abuse and humiliate his girlfriend onscreen and claim artistry before it suggests a pattern of misogyny.

Suburra, directed by Stefano Sollima, written by Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli, Carlo Bonini, Giancarlo De Cataldo. Starring Pierfrancesco Favino and Claudio Amendola. Italy, 136 minutes, III. Opens Oct 12.

Sollima is as downbeat — and focused — as Aronofsky is showily confrontational. Suburra is named after the Roman district once home to Julius Caesar that also means “slum” in Italian. In this iteration, it is the nexus where organized crime, the church, and politics meet, to the benefit of few and the great detriment of most modern Romans. It’s Rome of 2011, and Italy is in financial and political crisis again. When the federal government decides to develop the coastal Ostia into the Las Vegas of Italy, old school Mafioso Samurai (Claudio Amendola) and his cronies in government, led by development minister Filippo Malgradi (Pierfrancesco Favino, stellar) conspire to ensure it happens and get rich for it. Also demanding a piece of the action is the ambitious thug Number 8 (Alessandro Borghi), his junkie girlfriend Viola (Greta Scarano), marginalized Romany gangster Manfredi (Adamo Dionisi), sniveling party planner Sebastiano (Elio Germano) and Vatican Cardinal Berchet (Jean-Hugues Anglade). Sollima and his army of writers slowly, and in carefully doled out narrative bites, weave a tragedy built upon one decadent night gone wrong that ultimately unravels half a dozen corrupt lives. 

Does everyone deserve what they get in Suburra? Probably not. The film is a taut, razor-sharp critique of the Italian system and the lengths to which those stuck in it will go to survive it. Sollima has trod this path before, as director of the television series based on the gritty, compelling 2008 crime drama Gomorrah (Suburra is heading for Netflix Italia), and he’s currently at work on the sequel to Sicario. He’s got a firm grip on the material. There’s no glamour here, and no quotable “Offers he can’t refuse”, just a lot of desperation to get ahead of the next guy no matter the cost. For Sollima it may be a sign of the times, but for the rest of us it’s also a grimly-stylized walk through the Rome tourists never see.

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