For a brief movie, “Our Mothers” packs a lot in.
Cesar Diaz’s 78-minute debut won the Camera d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and was scheduled to appear at this year’s indefinitely postponed Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. It strains to include a major shift in perspective (we think a forensic anthropologist named Ernesto is the main character but he’s not), Guatemala’s brutal treatment of its indigenous people, a vast government/corporate conspiracy, and a painful meditation on the legacy of institutional violence. Oh, and it’s kind of a detective story.
The striking image that opens the Belgian-made movie sets the tone: It’s a view of a white table on which Ernesto tries to assemble the blackened bones of a human skeleton that lacks several key parts, including a skull. Throughout the movie, Ernesto will struggle to make sense of both his unsettled mind and his chaotic world, which is coming apart around him and which he quietly attempts to piece back together.
Ernesto (Armando Espitia, whose performance always suggests calm that covers up turmoil) works in the aftermath of years of state-sponsored violence, helping people find and identify the remains of loved ones whose bodies were tossed into mass graves.
One day, a potential client tells him about her husband, who has been missing for decades. It’s a tale of torture, rape and murder but it’s such a common one that she relates the events matter-of-factly, as if they happened to someone else. Ernesto sees a link to his own story in hers. Thinking he may have a clue to what happened to his missing father, Ernesto investigates, stymied by both his boss and, mysteriously, his own mother.
Like an episode of “Murder, She Wrote” (I’ve been bingeing on the Hallmark Channel — sue me), Diaz’s screenplay relies on coincidences and twists of fate. It’s possible he would be wise to leave the writing to someone else. But his instincts as a director are strong.
There’s a beautiful simplicity in the performances he elicits from his mix of professional and amateur actors, and as the aerial shot of the skeleton promises, he has a strong visual sense. The best scene in “Our Mothers,” in fact, is a wordless meditation on the many women who have lost men in their lives to violence.
“To live in this country, you have to be either mad or drunk,” says Ernesto early in the film (which is in Spanish, with subtitles), but it’s clear that Diaz does not subscribe to that cynical view. The director’s sympathies lie with the many characters who insist on grappling with the past. By the end of “Our Mothers,” Diaz finds a graceful way to suggest that, for Ernesto and for Guatemalans, there is a path that could lead to putting their lives back together.