Thursday, July 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Cinco Lobitos’ is a Moving Portrait of Motherhood

Director: Alauda Ruiz de Azua

Writer: Alauda Ruiz de Azua

Stars: Laia Costa, Susi Sánchez, Ramón Barea

Synopsis: Amaia, who has just become a mother, decides to return for guidance after her partner is temporarily away, to her parents’ house along the Basque coast.

Through a humanistic grasp of its topics and a touching, career-best performance by Laia Costa, Alauda Ruiz de Azua’s Cinco Lobitos (Lullaby) gracefully tackles the felicity and torment of being a mother – making this film one of the best (and most moving) feature-length directorial debuts in recent Spanish cinema.

Was 2022 the greatest year in Spanish cinema? Maybe we can agree with that statement in a few years’ time. Many releases left a heavy impression on me, both emotionally because of their topics and cinematically by the way in which they presented themselves to the audience. The deftness of the Spanish filmmakers that released projects last year was off the charts; it definitely felt like an awe-inspiring movement, as if everyone was trying to best each other. From Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Goya Awards success As Bestas (The Beasts) to Carla Simón’s Golden Bear-winning Alcarràs, fans of international cinema got a glimpse of the magisterial talents, both new and on the rise, from the people who call “La Piel del Toro” (The Bull Skin) their home. Although I really love those two aforementioned films (both were on my best-of-the-year list), there was one film that genuinely left me in awe for various reasons. That film was Alauda Ruiz de Azua’s comforting and stirring feature-length directorial debut, Cinco Lobitos (Lullaby). 

A thirty-something-year-old freelancer living in Madrid, Amaia (Laia Costa), just had her first child with Javi (Mikel Bustamante). They are delighted and joyful about this special gift that life has brought them. Coincidentally, Amaia and Javi are struggling with the emotional fallout of having a newborn child. It’s a monumental ordeal, even at the best of times – occasionally feeling like an exhausting haul of demands. But the worries and anguish of a mother have been fueled by love. Things get worse for Amaia when Javi disappears for weeks on a work trip (or another endeavor). She’s left alone to face all of the trials and tribulations of being a mother, with nobody to help her. Her need to take on freelance assignments to avoid relinquishing clients intertwines with the pressures of helming the role of a caretaker for the first time. Amaia is on the brink of shutting down entirely, so she goes to her parent’s home in the Basque Country for assistance. 

As you may expect, her parents, naïve Koldo (Ramón Barea) and the controlling Begoña (Susi Sánchez), will make things both more accessible and irritating, comparing what they went through with Amaia’s recent experiences. Although they are helping her, Amaia notices that her parents’ relationship is fractured, far beyond what she could imagine. By looking into Amaia’s eyes, you notice that she has seen (or heard) all of these fights before – the screaming matches, the quick comment that transitions into a bigger fight, amongst others. But she’s shocked by the degree of toxicity which it has reached. It’s heart-crushing for Amaia to see them constantly fighting while dealing with her child’s needs. All of this brings her down emotionally. A more profound sensation of slight melancholy intertwines with her internal thoughts about the past when Begoña falls ill. She’s constantly thinking about her parent’s relationship when she was young. This small detail that many people might not capture is seen in Laia Costa’s eyes. 

The anguish of the past makes her remember what has happened before and how it relates to her current situation. Cinco Lobitos (Lullaby) isn’t quite an in-depth exploration into our guardians’ past lives like in Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun or Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, as its focus is on other topics regarding motherhood. Yet, Alauda Ruiz de Azua takes some time to explore the duality between the roles of being a mother and a caretaker at different stages of one’s life – the reversal and exchange of such positions as the people we care about the most turn ill. It demonstrates how life throws punches at us while still bringing gifts into our hands that are worth the hits. Alauda Ruiz de Azua presents us with an unvarnished and humanistic portrayal of the postnatal mental and physical chaos that parents, primarily mothers, endure. There are no heroes and villains and non-stereotypical portrayals; the complexity of ordinary people and the detailed intricacy of human relationships drive the film to its awe-inspiring triumph.

Motherhood is a theme ever present in Spanish cinema, primarily seen within the expertly-crafted melodramatic affairs of legendary filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar (Parallel Mothers, All About My Mother, Julieta). It seems to be a narrative fixation that always tends to work because of his directorial and screenwriting maneuvers. Almodóvar may do a couple of callbacks to his other features while on a new project, but he manages to reinvent himself throughout each of them. That’s one of the reasons why Alauda Ruiz de Azua’s directorial debut ends up working in its totality – she embraces the past films of her country that tackle the topic of motherhood while implementing a deeper sensation of emotional tactility. Every emotion the film draws out, and narrative decisions feel human, occasionally documentary-esque due to its raw depictions of widely-known topics – the ups and downs of motherhood, absent fathers, and the cross-generational role women play as caretakers of us all.

It is truly impressive how not a single scene in this film feels artificially sweetened by the manipulative or excessively theatrical tendencies seen in most dramas. Alauda Ruiz de Azua exposes the worst instincts of her characters at their respective positions and makes them relatable and endearing due to Cinco Lobitos’ grounded nature and tender heart. Although the director deserves many rounds of applause and acclaim for her work, equal amounts of praise need to be given to the film’s lead, Laia Costa, who is slowly turning into one of the most fascinating actresses to watch in Spanish cinema. She is an actress that, like great modern European talents such as Adele Exarchopoulos and Paula Beer; you can’t take your eyes off of her. It makes the audience feel an array of emotions, all transmitted not only by the sharp screenplay but Costa’s facial expressions. Easily, Cinco Lobitos is one of the best films to have passed through the festival circuit last year. And better yet, when compared to the hundreds of directorial debuts that arise yearly, this one stands out. 

Grade: A

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