Director: Caspar Commijs
Writers: David Warringa & Caspar Commijs
Cast: Bas Keizer, Carlos García Estévez, Paige Allerton
Running time: 19mins
The human propensity to attempt to dictate events from beyond the grave is a constant. So too, is the Freudian confliction that step-children undergo in their relationship with a step-parent. The confliction may be particularly exacerbated if the relationship is male to male.
In that context, it may be that a stepson not only has to come to terms with the Oedipal realisation that their father had sex with their mama; but additionally come to terms with a consciousness that a stranger has been doing the same thing. With Mama’s Ashes, the young Dutch filmmaker, Caspar Commijs deftly weaves together these two themes.
Amid the hard-scrabble foothills of the Sierra Nevada in eastern Andalusia, we meet the young Jurriën (Bas Keizer) and his stepfather Estevan (Carlos García Estévez). We come to realise that the two are on a road trip to scatter the eponymous ashes of Jurriën’s dead mother and Estevan’s dead spouse. The ashes urn is a central motif, in the car or carried by Jurriën or Estevan – the silent presence of the dead woman in their – and our – consciousness.
The two men’s relationship is pretty fraught, with Jurriën trying to cut out on foot or by purloining their car, a white Mercedes saloon that has seen better days. On each occasion, the youngster is turned back by a vision of the dead mother. The car eventually breaks down and the couple are picked up by April, a female vehicle recovery operative (Paige Allerton).
April invites the men back to her place high up in the hills. The scene at April’s place is excellently scripted and the conversations between April and Estevan give the audience an insight into Estevan’s struggles as a stepfather. In the preceding scenes, the camera’s focus – and hence the viewer’s empathy – had been very much with Jurriën, but here Estevan subtly emerges centre stage. It’s a clever switch in emphasis, and well realised. The conversation also reveals to us that it was the mother’s last wish conveyed to Estevan that he and Jurriën must never drift apart – the dead woman’s desire has locked them together.
In spite of this, events that night combine to make Jurriën even further alienated. The young Dutchman’s experience of Spanish culture amid the otherness of the Spanish landscape accentuates his isolation. Jurriën’s eventual acting out amid his alienation allows writers Commijs and David Warringa to set up a quite astonishing turn, and provide the audience with a powerful, emotional resolution.
In his directorial capacity, meanwhile, Commijs demonstrates a fine ability to coax strong performances from his actors. The younger Keizer has the deceptively easy task of projecting oedipal angst – but in a role that might have seen others lapse into caricature, his performance pretty much hits the mark. Estevez’s portrayal of Estevan is arguably more of a feat, though; here we see a rounded, self-aware character develop out of the irritated and irritating slob that we thought we knew in the earlier scenes.
Even after that, however, the stand-out performance comes from Allerton as April – bringing amused and amusing feminine calm to counterpoint the male posturing of man and boy. A subtle and enchanting piece of acting.
Wiegert de Vries’ cinematography is also excellent, and does a fine job evoking the strangeness of the concrete hotels, filling stations, and serpentine roads carved into the desolate lunar landscape. The façade of The Hotel Vista Nevada, one of our travellers’ stops,truly has to be seen to be believed.
Meanwhile the script sets up some memorable visual set-ups and payoffs. The one I most enjoyed was the hitchhikers’ hands. Early on, the plot has Jurriën hitchhiking. We see a closeup of a hand with the thumb up and the camera pans away to reveal Jurriën. Toward the end of the film, we are shown two hands with thumbs raised and the camera pans back to show us Jurriën and Estevan hitchhiking together – a great shot that effectively plays on the audience’s memory of the earlier scene.
While the movie gets so much right, though, this review does still come with a couple of notes. One thing many viewers may find is the attempt to link both Jurriën’s coming to terms with the mother’s death and the problematic relationship as to the stepfather, with contested national identities, is in itself problematic at times, painting a picture with some unfortunately broad strokes. Some of it works. For example, I enjoyed the fluidity of the language – the switches between Dutch, Spanish and English. I loved the recognition of how the sheer weirdness of dynastic marriage and earlier state formation have coloured modernity – in this case – orange. Dutch orange and Spanish oranges. Commijs gives us the plastic orange of the car key-ring and the characters eating oranges at strategic moments. If you want to know how to best eat an orange – watch out for the scene where Estevan shows you how to.
However, my problem was that the Spanish ambience was just too monolithic and unremitting. One of the most notable aspects of this issue related to the soundtrack. Commijs employs the talents of a Dutch flamenco guitarist Jeff Heijne and a composer Spijk Groenendijk. Heijne is no doubt an excellent guitarist, but the constant flamenco accompaniment got pretty wearisome and oppressive at times. A burst of the kind of music a young Dutch person might listen to would have provided some light and shade and situated Jurriën’s own national identity. It was as though one had been gifted an extensive jazz collection but was only allowed to play Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain.
The area this is most emphatic is in the very beginning of the film, though. There is a severe tonal dissonance between the film’s opening and the rest of the production; the scene-setting-sequence is highly stylised, in a way that does not accurately prime our expectations of what is to come. That is something that might count against it for some viewers.
We are first introduced to Jurriën and the Mercedes while a flamenco guitar accompanies a dramatic, portentous folk song – sub-titles appear on the screen allowing non-Spanish speaking viewers to understand the song is about love lost. Jurriën holds up a cardboard destination placard with the word – Hollando. A few shots later Jurriën holds a new placard with the words – The Fugitive. Estevan then makes his entrance bearing a placard reading – The Stepfather. As the scene develops the screen is dominated by a woman flamenco dancer in full costume performing a glowering, stomping flamenco.
The dancer is filmed as though she is a giant set against the distant mountains and passing cars on the highway. In the background, we see Estevan pursuing Jurriën catching him and pulling his prone body by the feet along the ground – as though we were in an ancient slapstick comedy. All this, whilst the viewer is still endeavouring to digest the meaning of the folksong’s lyrics as they flash across the top of the screen. These early scenes have such a different feel to the rest of the movie – the director only subverts the linear narrative on one further occasion – the film’s final shot.
There is such a disjunct between the two approaches that I felt I was watching two different movies – never a good indication. I gained the impression that the director was overly conscious that the format was a short narrative movie, and resorted to the subversive placard device as a short cut to quickly impart a host of background information – while using the exaggeration to overcompensate in the creation of a specifically Spanish cultural ambience.
One aspect of the opening sequence that did catch my eye was the inevitable appearance in an Andalusian story of the Osbourne Bull. For readers unfamiliar with Spanish roads – this is a giant 2D silhouette of a black bull advertising a brand of alcoholic drink – it haunts the highways of southern Spain. Designed in the 50s by Manolo Prieto, the bull is a piece of marketing genius – no logos – just the impenetrable blackness of the bull. For northerners like your reviewer, it is pure atavism – the Minotaur come back to life. Filmmakers usually shoot it with the ladder at the back of the silhouette in view to alert us to the artifice of it all. Bigas Luna used this shot in his magical classic Jamón Jamón which let a young Javier Bardem and an even younger Penélope Cruz loose upon the world. Commijs uses the exact same shot – though out of homage to Bigas Luna or pure happenstance – who is to say?
The above points aside, with the release of Mama’s Ashes, we have seen the emergence of an exceptionally talented filmmaker in Commijs. As director and co-writer, he has shown an impressive ability in putting together a deeply humane examination of how we grieve, and a nuanced take on a stepfather/stepson relationship – a remarkable achievement. And, in one memorable moment, he has also taught us how to eat oranges.