Mahnaz Mohammadi’s tale of an Iranian mother’s dilemma render the emotional highs and lows of its characters with a naturalistic clarity. That Son-Mother achieves this range without ever feeling like a cinematic rollercoaster, due to switching points of view, shows the skill of the storytelling.
Leila (Raha Khodayari) is a widow, working a factory job in Iran. Providing for her son, Amir (Mahan Nasiri), and young daughter is proving to be a strain, and she has been consistently late for work as a result of declining to ride the workers’ bus. The reason is her avoidance of the bus driver, Mr. Kazem (Reza Behboodi), whose marriage proposal she is reluctant to accept. Her son — despite his young age — is too old to live in the same home as Mr. Kazem’s daughter. To accept, Leila would need to remove Amir from the family home. She could then provide for her family, but it means she can’t keep it whole.
Son-Mother is a gently paced film that places great emphasis on tone, and takes care in framing in the opening story. When Leila finally rides the bus, a cabal of convivial men occupy the back seats, with the women at the edges of the frame isolated and alone. The dialogue also sets the cultural context without righteous indignation or expository sermons. A simple “Don’t store cotton and fire together” is at once explanatory and also heartbreaking. The comparison of a young and naive boy to “fire” is a touchingly simple way to underline the absurdity of the coming domestic tragedy.
The pacing and editing of Son-Mother work effectively in setting up the maternal drift that occurs once Leila faces the inevitable need to accept Mr. Kazem’s proposal. Amir appears with an institutionally-acceptable shaven head, symbolically shorn of the comforts of home and the warmth of family. In this segment, the film favours slightly longer takes and stand off-ish framing, mostly rejecting close-ups from thereon. It is only when the boys of the school chase frantically after a bird, with the editing reflecting the chaos, that Son-Mother provides a sense of the emotional instability Amir must be experiencing.
Son-Mother moves into an area (when focusing on Amir) which evokes François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but also a more recent release in the form of Oscar-nominee Capernaum. As effective as that film is — also depicting the familial strife of a young boy in a Middle Eastern city — it uses other stylistic elements to heighten the emotion of the situation. Remarkably, Son-Mother does this without the use of music or even much dialogue, as Mohammadi’s visual storytelling is impeccable, and there is nothing sensationalised about it in the slightest.
Even as Son-Mother closes, the emotional facade creaks rather than breaks. It is only the slightest shift away from the understated imagery of before, but it is felt profoundly and perfectly underlines Mohammadi’s well-calibrated filmmaking.
Jim Ross (@JimGR) is a film critic and film journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the Managing Editor and co-founder of TAKE ONE Magazine, which began as the official review publication of the Cambridge Film Festival and now covers film festivals and independent film worldwide. Jim hosted a fortnightly film radio show on Cambridge 105FM from 2011-2013 and joined the crew of Cinetopia, on Edinburgh community radio EH-FM, in 2019.