Lindsay Burdge and Jade Eshete in Materna (2021)
“I drink to the ruined house, to the evil of my life, to our loneliness together, and I drink to you.”
This excerpt from Anna Akhmatova’s poem, The Last Toast, suggests overwhelming defeat. A toast to succumbing on a path of loneliness and strained relationships. An abrupt finality of hopes and dreams. The poetry of The Last Toast is a fitting way for writer-director David Gutnik to introduce his feature directorial debut. Materna is a multi-stranded psychological portrait of four women who are experiencing inner turmoil. Making use of an anthology format, their stories are woven together by an incident on the New York City subway. A fateful encounter they all happen to witness puts their futures and all hope of personal transformation at stake. As glimpses of the underground plot cut in and out, the film spends time on each of the four women, strangers to one another but embodying themes that are universal. Their distinct inner worlds and emotional journeys bring some intriguing perspectives to the screen. While the film feels disjointed at times, the actors do the heavy lifting to make this character-driven piece worth the ride as it builds to an unsettling conclusion.
Materna showcases an incredibly talented cast of actors, each of whom personifies various perspectives of self-actualization. Jean, Mona, Ruth, and Perizad lead radically different lives across NYC. Jean (Kate Lyn Sheil) lives alone, works for a visual effects company, and has a complicated relationship with her mother. Mona (Jade Eshete) is a working actor who, feeling the stress from a distant relationship with her mother, channels her emotions into monologues. Ruth (Lindsay Burdge) and her family carry ignorant beliefs and bigotry in a hotbed of conversations over the dining room table. Perizad (Assol Abdullina) returns home after the death of her uncle, and discovers a family truth that her grandmother has kept hidden. The film observes a slice of the women’s worlds before they hop onto the subway. Each slice feels like its own fully realized narrative, shown one after another like a series of short films while the subway plot builds in between. One of the benefits of seeing Materna play out as an anthology is hearing the voices of different performers. Eshete and Abdullina, who are also co-writers on the film, bring so much conviction to their characters and shine as the standouts of the cast.
While the anthology format opens up a world of different perspectives, some stories are naturally more interesting than others. Mona and Perizad’s segments resonate the most, while Jean and Ruth’s segments wear on too long and feel contrived. The separated storylines drag down the pacing of the film as a whole. Each one also works best independently of one another, rather than joined narratively in orbit around the subway incident. As disjointed as the interconnected storylines feel, there are a lot of intriguing ideas at play. One of the constant threads in the film surrounds loss in motherhood, whether it be the loss of a child, the loss of a thriving mother-daughter relationship, the loss of morality and teachings. All the while, characters who appear to be a lost cause are trying to regain hope, even if just for a moment. When Jean has a traumatic experience, she instinctively calls her mother, but can’t bring herself to say anything on the line. When Mona reaches out to her mother, she hopes to finally be met halfway. The title of the film makes an interesting implication that in this story, the feelings typically associated with a mother or being motherly are missing. Instead of focusing on the quintessential adjectives of a maternal relationship (warm, tender, kind nurturing, gentle), Materna explores another side to motherhood that is a difficult and draining reality for many.
The title Materna also evokes a digitized quality and speaks to the over reliance of technology, not only for primary source of communication but as a substitution for face-to-face relationships. Jean and Mona in particular have relationships with their mothers that exist strictly over phone calls and texts. David Gutnik sparks interesting discussion about the solitude that can come with technology, and how digital forms of communication become almost like the final thread that hold long-distance or strained relationships together. In these instances where there’s so much to lose, the weight of every conversation is felt so deeply. The film really gives all the actors space to bring the characters to life for a brief moment in time. Materna is a character-driven drama about the spaces between words; what’s left unsaid between people, the frustration of not being met halfway, the difficulty of revealing true selves, how loss shapes the dynamic of relationships. There’s a stunning scene in Perizad’s storyline, where three generations of women are linked arm in arm as they share in an emotional moment without saying a word. For the most part, the actors certainly do the heavy lifting in the film; the intertwining stories would fall apart without the nuance of their performances.
Beyond the four women’s stories is a recurring plot that takes place on the NYC subway, where a man harasses some of them directly and creates an increasingly hostile environment. There are mixed emotions in watching their stories framed around the actions of this man. While the intertwining narratives don’t fully click together, again there are a lot of interesting ideas at play underneath it all. The man on the subway embodies an essentially one-note performance, whose every moment in frame is spent interjecting and invading women’s personal space. It’s a thoughtful reflection of how women’s experiences and thoughts are so often undermined by men who assert dominance. The subway setting is a strong embodiment particularly of women who are carrying the complexities of their worlds, while also being women on the subway: subjected to relentless harassment by men.
Materna explores interesting themes through the lens of different perspectives, and makes good use of setting. Beyond the interconnectedness of the subway, the film explores people’s personal spaces and how they navigate them when no one else is around. What do they feel comfortable doing in the privacy of their homes, and how does that facilitate a sense of loneliness? The contrast between facing personal challenges and pulling one’s self together in public is a distinct feeling that the film captures well. Materna delves into psychological portraits, some far more resonating than others, about strained family matters and personal growth. While the buildup on the subway leads to an underwhelming conclusion, this feature directorial debut shows promise as a solid character-driven story.