The Spanish import Journey to a Mother’s Room opens on a two-shot that wordlessly crystallizes the relationship between its characters. The mom of the title, Estrella (Lola Dueñas), is asleep on her sofa next to her slumbering daughter, Leonor (Anna Castillo), a young woman of indeterminate age but who is certainly too old to share a makeshift bed with her mother. They’re even covering themselves up with the same thermal blanket—an object that will assume a weighty symbolism of severed connective tissue as this elegant character study commences.
But in this shot, mother and daughter are one, and like a cell dividing, they must become two.
The next few scenes establish this family’s everyday reality, with Estrella helping to clothe, groom and feed Leonor, and even finding her work in the same garment factory that employed Estrella for many years. If Leonor finds this (s)mothering stifling, she doesn’t show it, because codependence is a function of both characters’ way of life.
It is how they have grieved together: Leonor’s father has recently died of a cause unrevealed to us; we know his passing is still fresh because the phone company keeps calling to pitch a new offer to the “account holder.” His shirts still hang in the closet; he’s the ghostly elephant in every room in the apartment.
Unbeknownst to her mother, Leonor, unhappy and unfit as a seamstress, has been contemplating a move to London, to learn English and become an au pair for a wealthy family. Whenever she brings up this ambition, Estrella overreacts and then relents, the understandable response of a woman who fears losing her lifeline but wants what’s best for her daughter. Thus, the decoupling begins.
The first half of the movie is Leonor’s, charting her own belated journey away from her mother’s cocoon. The second part is Estrella’s, who must contend with a nest that is not only empty; it’s losing its twigs. The coffeemaker stops functioning, the warming blanket catches fire, her beloved sewing machine suddenly needs repair. For someone whose calling involves ironing — literally and metaphorically smoothing out life’s wrinkles — her ability to cope with her new paradigm is put to a daily test.
Journey to a Mother’s Room is the directorial debut of Celia Rico Clavellino, and it’s a remarkably assured vision. At once personal and universal, it’s a film that accrues the quiet wisdom and poignant family dynamic of mid-period Ozu. She also brings a similar sense of economy and understatement to her storytelling, with a fixed camera and no superfluous edits; every shot has utility.
Clavellino eschews, completely, a musical score, and you won’t miss its strains. She’s not out to manipulate us, or to fall back on easy sentimentality, which may be why she doesn’t show us the mid-film goodbye between Leonor and Estrella: We just see them leave the apartment en route to the airport, their maudlin separation left to our imagination.
The director is more fond of lingering on relatable minutiae, shots that seem to connect mother and daughter in life’s little boredoms, whether it’s Leonor’s metronomic tapping of a sewing thimble onto the machine’s surface, or Estrella’s fruitless attempts to remove an engrained smudge from a beloved coffee table. Both are prime examples of the influential critic Manny Farber’s conception of “termite art,” a celebration of quotidian gestures winning out over excessive “elephant art,” while speaking to the characters’ larger issues of restlessness (for Leonor) and fastidious maintenance (for Estrella).
There are moments of self-actualization and emotional catharsis as Journey to a Mother’s Room approaches its sublime finale, but they are presented in a refreshingly minor key. These are two people whose connection is too strong to resort to, say, a thrown wine glass or even a raised voice. For a movie predicated on the acceptance that two people who once shared the same body must, for the good of both of them, live their own lives, Journey to a Mother’s Room is just the sort of masterful portrait that should bring families together.
JOURNEY TO A MOTHER’S ROOM. Director: Celia Rico Clavellino; Cast: Lola Dueñas, Anna Castillo, Pedro Casablanc, Marisol Membrillo; Distributor: Outsider Pictures; in Spanish with English subtitles. Opens today at Living Room Theaters at FAU in Boca Raton, Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and the Tower Theatre in Miami. Dueñas and Clavellino will appear live for Q&As following the 7 p.m. screening today at the Tower Theatre; the 7:30 p.m. screening Friday at Savor Cinema; and the late afternoon screening Saturday at Living Room Theaters.