Sunday, February 25, 2024

Movie Review: ‘La Piedad’ is a Provocative Take on Motherly Attachment

Director:  Eduardo Casanova

Writer: Eduardo Casanova

Stars: Manuel Llunell, Ángela Molina, Macarena Gómez

Synopsis: Follows the toxic relationship between a mother and her son, drawing a parallel between the dictatorship in North Korea and the people.

The provocative and occasionally telenovela-like La Pietà (La Piedad) has Eduardo Casanova dwelling once again, for better or worse, on exploitation and vulgarity, this time to deliver a terrifying interpretation of the “mommie dearest” attachment. There are many instances in which the Spanish filmmaker’s screenplay causes a risible reaction from the audience. But, it does manage to leave an impression on the viewer because of its shock factor imagery. 

One thing that Spanish filmmaker Eduardo Casanova has repeated in multiple interviews and Q&As is that “art has to provoke”. Of course, a little exploitation edge doesn’t do much harmin most independent or arthouse films. Still, Casanova believes that provocation should be one of the essential facets in crafting a feature film from the ground up. Many, including me, disagree with his statements, even though he has created some titillating images because of such an inclination to kitsch. At the very least, one could say that he has a distinctive style; you immediately know when you are watching one of his films. Throughout his young career, he has been curating his filmography to cement himself as the new generation of Spanish filmmakers’ John Waters – a director that dwells on trashiness and vulgarity to uplift his surrealistic and comedic stories. With his latest work, Pietà (La Piedad), Eduardo Casanova returns to shock and revolt the audience by intertwining the themes of obsessive motherly love with dictatorship.

Pietà begins by foreshadowing the introduction to the film’s second half. A mother, Libertad (Angela Molina), and son, Mateo (Manel Llunel), are awaiting the results of some medical tests. Before we hear whether or not they are all right, the film jumps to the events that transpired three days earlier. A bright pink-colored musical dance sequence, in which the Korean song’s lyrics aren’t subtitled, is shown. As Libertad dances the choreographed pastel waltz, Mateo smiles in astonishment at her mother’s talents. Yet, there’s something eerie about it. The mother-son relationship between Libertad and Mateo seems obsessive and strange. The guardian seems to apply manipulation and torture of some kind to control all of their children’s decisions. The first glimpse of this is shared with the audience via the glances the mother-son duo share during the dance. After the dance class, they head home, where news about North Korea having the first “real-life” unicorn is shared in television broadcasts. 

Not even ten minutes into the film, the audience is divided into love or hate stances. These narrative twists and turns cause the audience to be annoyed or intrigued about what’s to come. Later in the story, it is revealed that Mateo has late-stage cancer. He’s worried about it, but his mother is even more anxious. Libertad loves him so much that she’s willing to do whatever she must to stay with him for a more extended period of time. The rest of the film involves toxic mother-son dynamics that capture the film’s thematic essence of suffocating affection and protection in uniquely bizarre, yet ultimately baffling ways. Pietà (La Piedad) can’t be put into a straightforward genre checklist because it takes inspiration from many of them in seemingly randomized instances. There are more than a handful of confusing moments that are unclear whether it is meant to be taken seriously or comically self-aware. Knowing Casanova’s work and hearing him talk about the film afterward in the Q&A, I began to think that all that transpired in the movie, by his own understanding, is meant to be seen as a profound exercise in excess, although it clearly isn’t. 

Eduardo Casanova wants to interlace the topics of smothering motherly dependence and dictatorship in a way that would make the film a challenging experience for the viewer due to the provocation in its themes and the implementation of body horror aesthetics (which are done admirably). However, that intertwining doesn’t find its footing at all because of its lackluster and occasionally farcical Telenovela-like screenplay by the man himself. The extended metaphor of the mass psychosis and Stockholm syndrome-based relationships has a clear line of thought and ingenuity, periodically lifted by the jet-black comedy that arises amidst Casanova’s pink world. Nevertheless, it is eventually hindered because of his constant mockish “look at me” reminders and provocative artistic standings. One positive aspect of this filmmaking approach is his distinctiveness and proper shocks amidst unfavorable world-building. He is crafting some unique images that feel like horrific paintings. It is noticeable that Casanova takes his time curating his stirring sequences because they are memorable. A couple of days have passed since I saw the movie, and there are still images stuck in my head. 

The main problem with Eduardo Casanova’s latest is that the four-way division between campiness, satire, self-seriousness, and provocation is too thin-layered to explore its ideas properly. I know Casanova desperately wants to leave an impression on the audience, hence the shock factor elements. Yet, it comes as a double-edged sword. It does its job by startling the viewer effectively, although he never delivers a fully operative analysis of the topics he wants to discuss. Pietà, for the most part, arrives empty-handed outside of the ridiculous extremities of intriguing exploitation. Like in his previous full-length feature, Skins (Pieles), he somewhat taps into vulgar camp filmmaking. This is his best facet as a director because Casanova’s ideas are creative and strangely fascinating. But he never actually does something worthy of those concepts. Ultimately, it ends up as a mixed, albeit interestingly shocking, bag of pink-colored comedic horrors, for better or worse. 

Grade: C+

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