It’s an extremely difficult task to create a psychological horror film that feels complete. Since many of these films often lie to their audiences by showing them events that never actually occurred, payoffs can feel really cheap if not constructed properly. While Aaron Burns’ Madre does fall victim to some of these issues, its bold approach and eerie final act make it far more memorable than most of its counterparts.
Following expecting mother Diana (Daniela Ramírez) as she struggles to care for her severely autistic son, Martin (Matías Bassi), while her husband, Tomás (Cristobal Tapia Montt), is working overseas, the film is an incredibly emotional one. In the opening scene alone, it is clear that regardless of how much Diana loves her son, she simply is not qualified to care for a child with his condition. When Luz (Aida), a Filipino woman working at a local grocery store, calms Martin during one of his violent outbursts, Diana immediately hires her to be his caretaker — then things get really strange.
Unsettled by the fact that Luz refuses to teach Martin any language other than Filipino, Diana begins to suspect that there is something sinister happening right under her nose. As she slowly begins to lose her grip on reality, the narrative of the film becomes increasingly (and seemingly intentionally) difficult to follow. Fantasy and reality seem to mesh as Diana becomes more and more convinced that Luz’s traditional healing methods are actually some sort of voodoo. Then the film really starts to get interesting.
While the first two acts of Madre are spent developing the characters and establishing the complicated relationships between all of the family members and Luz, the final twenty minutes or so are legitimately creepy. Burns approaches the finale in a decidedly genre manner, which has its pros and cons. It’s effective and quite unsettling, but it also feels slightly out of place since the transition is a bit rough.
What makes Madre such a thought-provoking film is the fact that its subject matter is so taboo, yet it is approached without any reservations. Given that autism affects an increasing number of people every year, it’s a topical subject to address in a film and Burns deserves kudos for having the courage to analyze its effects in a genre sphere. Thankfully, it’s easy to feel sympathy for Diana, who struggles with feeling like less of a mother to her son who can only communicate with Luz. Even though she is a flawed human being who makes her fair share of mistakes, your heart really goes out for her for trying to help her son in the only way she knows how.
You’re almost guaranteed to have complicated feelings about this one, and as a result, Madre promises to be a polarizing film. It’s not without its faults, and certain scenes run a few minutes too long, but the boldness on display is nothing short of admirable, and in the complex world of art, that’s something you have to respect.
Madre recently screened at SXSW 2017.