After the credits appears a painting. A mother and her son are lying on a bed. The mother under covers and the son leaning over her. Soon this painting comes to life and the son begins to speak, but we can't even see his mouth moving. Soon enough it strikes us that this isn't a painting, that his mouth is moving, and that woman under the covers too shows some signs of life. This is the nature of Sokurov's highly praised Mother and Son. A film so painterly, so exquisite in its beauty that you have a hard time telling whether or not its a film or photographing paintings. This first long shot sets up the whole tone of the film. The painterly image, the rounded angles, the slight mist in the house, the peaceful dialogue between the film's only two characters, and the pacing of the shots.
Sokurov alternates between static close ups, gentle panning shots, and extreme long shots. The son finds himself engulfed in his surroundings. A mere speck in the landscape, a dwarf next to the forest, looking out over a vast sea and what is a barely discernable sailboat. He is overwhelmed by his surroundings. Alone in this landscape with his dying mother, who he can't bear to lose but can't bear to keep alive. He is the effortlessly self sacrificing son, and one who seems motivated by a primal genetic code above anything. The mother feels sorry for him, and at the same time the son calls his mother "My little one". There maternal roles have been reversed. She can't fathom how he could so devotedly care for her, but this is simply life in reverse. The mother had once fed, walked, and nurtured her defenseless infant son, and now it is his turn, and despite the burden, I believe that this son is grateful for the opportunity to repay his mother this immeasurable debt.
Sokurov cast Aleksei Ananishnov and Gudrun Geyer as his two leads, and neither had ever acted before. He wants his characters to be universal, the scene acted out could be anywhere at any time. Amidst this overbearing landscape they are alone. The son even tells his mother "Let's live without people." He is forever trying to justify to his mother that she is not an inconvenience, and that she is not causing him unnecessary problems. This is why he is only able to cry when he is alone in nature, standing next to a tree, just as he stood his mother against a tree earlier. When he returns and finds his mother deceased he is crying not just for the loss, but partially for his own guilt in being away during that final moment. The soundtrack is extremely interesting at this point. Nearly the entire film is completely silent with just the sounds of nature in the background. However when the son is crying in the woods we faintly here the sound of a woman singing in the background, which I assumed was the voice of his mother, remembered from an earlier time. Therefore when we hear her voice out here, we can assume that it is her spirit passing on, and temporarily through him.
Through the use of characteristic long takes, wide angle lenses, and stained glass Sokurov and cinematographer Aleksei Fyodorov have created an elemental tapestry of nature. A film that seems like it could come from an 18th century novel, as much as from the cinematic heritage of Tarkovsky. However Tarkovsky was never this elemental. I wonder if any other Russian filmmaker can make a film so primal, so simple, yet so haunting. Nothing happens, and even when there is a death, we don't see it, and the son doesn't dwell on it. This is an intimate portrait of two loved ones who are simultaneously engulfed in each other. The mother's last hours and the sacrifice of a caring son. Rarely can we see something more universal in film as well, I wonder sometimes if this entire film could have been made without dialogue, I'm not sure if anything would have been lost.