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SXSW Film Review: ‘Madre’

Variety logo Variety 3/14/2017 Dennis Harvey
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The age-old complaint that “you just can’t get good servants these days” is raised to a hysterical pitch in “Madre,” in which a bourgeoise Santiago housewife fears her Filipina nanny-cum-housekeeper is some kind of voodoo usurper. Flat and sometimes downright laughable as a thriller, and oddly skittish about embracing its horror aspects, this is a disappointing second feature for actor and VFX supervisor-turned-writer-director Aaron Burns, whose prior U.S. indie seriocomedy “Blatino” was well-received on the festival circuit. The marketable genre aspects of the Chilean-produced, Spanish-language film have nonetheless attracted Netflix, which picked up global streaming rights for this disposable home-viewing item.

Diana Prieto (Daniela Ramirez) is pregnant with a second child while stressfully coping with her first born. Diagnosed with severe autism, approximately 10-year-old Martin (Matias Bassi) can be unpredictably violent. He still wears diapers, must be spoon-fed in a high chair, and gets strapped down in bed at night lest he harm himself — as he does at the film’s opening when Diana finds him repeatedly banging his head against a wall. She’s at the end of her coping skills, which frankly don’t seem all that strong to begin with. Husband Tomas (Cristobal Tapia Montt), who’s frequently on business trips to Japan, can’t offer much hands-on support. They can afford paid help, but every nanny they’ve hired has jumped ship within a couple trying days.

Suddenly a savior appears: When Martin goes on a rampage in a supermarket, store employee Luz (Aida Jabolin) is able to instantly, miraculously, calm him down. She gratefully accepts the offer of domestic employment, saying her own son David (Nicolas Duran) was just like Martin but worse, and is now “cured” — as indeed Diana discovers upon later being introduced to the seemingly completely normal young man.

Under Luz’s care, Martin’s behavior drastically improves. At first it only mildly bothers Diana that this Filipina emigre only speaks her native language with him; that she’s eased him off his medications without maternal consent; or even that weird homemade charms start turning up in odd places (like Tomas’ suitcase). But Diana’s rising paranoia is bolstered when an instant-audio-translation phone app appears to confirm that Luz is poisoning her son against her. Then it begins to seem that Luz is literally poisoning Diana as well, with resulting retching, rashes and hallucinations. Diana fears that whatever game is being played here is a deadly one.

With its generically bright look and seeming disinterest in suspenseful atmosphere or set pieces, “Madre” bungles most of its admittedly derivative potential as a combination “nanny from Hell” movies and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Shock imagery is pedestrian (an insect found in Diana’s ear, brief nightmares) and scant (considering that the whole story should hinge on the heroine’s increasingly slippery grip on reality). Nor does it help that Ramirez’s performance renders the unsympathetic Diana as more bratty than already apparent in the writing. Yet the subversive social-satire potential in having a privileged lead victim we don’t root for seems well beyond the film’s simple, klutzy intentions. When the long-delayed mayhem finally arrives, it’s so poorly handled, and the fadeout is so unsatisfying, that “Madre” appears to have lost interest in its own premise.

The film is predictable in its plot beats (Martin draws childish but increasingly disturbed pictures; the family dog “disappears”). And though there are variably credible and pro performances — Jacolin’s Luz is as conspicuously evil as Billie Whitelaw’s Nanny Baylock in the original “Omen,” albeit with apparently atrophied facial muscles — “Madre” only really grabs attention when its dialogue or other elements provoke unintended laughs. Technical and design contributions are more televisual than big-screen-worthy.

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