Mama, did you hear the wail of the train
when I fetched water?
It sang with the birds
and it drew the wind
and the wind stroked the grasses as it passed.
White smoke vanished
into a sky of rose-grey storms
and the grass was green and gold.
Mama, the plum blossom
is too white for this music that you hear
that sounds like shadows on the wall.
This wood that crackles
with the draw of air through the fire,
let it warm your thoughts
as I comb the tangles from your hair
and listen to your breath.
Mama, should I carry you now?
The swifts are shrieking
thunder is in the air
and sand is swirling from the paths.
Stay with me and I will read to you
rest your head on my arm
and I will read to you from your past.
We shall be still and we shall journey together.
Mama, while you were sleeping I wept.
I walked past the quarries
and into the beech woods.
I looked out to the ocean which was steel,
the air was thick with your faint singing
and I could not rise until a woodpecker
hammered a pathway for me
and I was no longer afraid.
Mama, do not be afraid.
I want to go for a walk.
A son lies with his dying mother who is breathing softly. He smiles to himself, then tells her a dream, the thread and the words of which she continues. He combs her hair. She says that she wants to go for a walk. Are you only pretending to be ill? he says. Yes, I’m pretending, she whispers.
Mother and Son is a place of intermingled dreams and memories, where the sound of waves heard behind the opening credits belongs to the lines from an old postcard or to a walk along the cliffs that the son takes by himself. It is a place where the wind that flows like water through the long grass recalls the mother’s hand gently ruffling her son’s hair as he reads the postcard from someone called Alexander. The piano and oboe music that plays through the credits and the opening scene already sounds like a memory. The film’s timescale is irrelevant, as time becomes during the dying of a loved one; it may take place over hours or days, the precedence of time ousted by the need to calmly usher in death by learning to let go and not be afraid. It takes place in a time of natural learning – of learning to leave a son, and of learning to live without a mother. This has its own time.
How small you are.
The son picks up his mother and carries her to a bench in woodland near her house. He leaves her to fetch letters and runs back to her, perhaps fearing she may already be dead. In his absence, as we watch, lying on a bench with the wind through the woodland plants, she becomes part of the natural world; as later, her son does when on his own walk he lays himself down on a woodland path and becomes invisible against the leaves.
One of the main sounds in the film is that of breathing, the breathing of both mother and son, the wheezing of constriction and the gentle breathing of sleep. There is also the sound of thunder, the sound of wind through the trees and the crackling of a fire. When he walks with her in his arms, the son does so to thunder and the shrieking of swifts.
As he carries her along the paths of the landscape, cradling her and protecting her from the dust stirred up by the wind, the path seems theirs alone; almost an expression of their shared inner world. There is the sight and sound of a distant train, and once, a person walking on the skyline, but otherwise nothing intrudes on their world of sounds, thoughts and memories, which we share on the level of their breath.
The lansdcape through which mother and son walk and the house in which they live are made to look like paintings, or a dream. Nothing was done to the images in post-production. They were instead filmed through anamorphic lenses, refractive panes of glass and smeared and painted transparent surfaces. Partly, the look of the film was inspired by the canvases of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, with his silhouettes of trees against a peachy light, and his views of mountain paths with the distant landscape disappearing into mist. Sokurov has said that he was aiming for a deliberately two-dimensional effect in his film. In doing so he has achieved a look that embodies something of a painter’s art. This is shown well early on in the film, as the son watches the white smoke from a distant train being puffed into the air as it emerges from a wood to cut below windblown green-gold grassland, with the sky dark and looming and thunder in the air. It is a scene that recalls the way a good landscape painting not only captures a moment of light but also intimates the way the scene had been before that moment and the way it will change in the next. For a moving image to tremble with the potential of the stillness of a painting is remarkable.
Sleep, mother. I'll be back soon.
After leaving his mother to sleep in her house, the son goes out by himself to walk. His mother watches a butterfly that rests on her finger. It remains as she crosses her hands over her chest. The son walks to the cliffs. From there, he sees a sailing ship, far out on the grey sea, and as he watches from woodland, he begins to weep in animal grief. He remembers his mother singing and a woodpecker hammers at a tree. When he returns the butterfly is still on his mother’s finger.
Mother and Son is a film of the intimacy that comes only with illness or the approach of death. There is bodily intimacy – the son stroking his mother’s papery skin, lovingly combing the tangles from her hair, carrying her or wrapping her with a shawl – and the intimacy of the mind, as with their shared dreams and shared thoughts. At times in the film they speak to each other without their lips moving.
This is a film to hold you utterly rapt, and its atmosphere remains after leaving the screen. I watched the film, then went outside and it seemed as if the film had continued. It was April, and a warm evening easterly bustled the birches and the holly, and the early apple blossom seemed lit from within as the white haze of the sky grew darker with the coming night.
Mama, you can hear me. I know.