Movies: Mother of Tears (2007)

In my recent review of 2022’s Dark Glasses, I talked a little bit about my love of the early work of Dario Argento and the decline in the quality of his movies that began around the 1990s and continues, pretty much unabated, to this day. It’s a shame, of course, but it happens to most artists as they age, unfortunately, so it’s not just a problem that Argento has by a long shot.

Since 1977’s Suspiria is one of my favorite horror films of all time, and since I was also a reasonably big fan of its follow-up, 1980’s Inferno, no one was more excited than I was back in the mid-2000s when it became clear that Argento was finally going to finish his Three Mothers trilogy. The whole mythology surrounding the Three Mothers—whose origin stemmed from Thomas de Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis—and the aesthetic flair of the initial two films, made me really eager to see what a more modern take on the tale would look like, though I’ll admit that I knew to temper my expectations somewhat; I’d already seen 2004’s The Card Player, after all, and that movie was…well, not good. But I still had high hopes that Argento would return to the visual feasts of Suspiria and Inferno in other to bring the third film, Mother of Tears, to vivid life.

The movie only got released into a handful of theaters in the United States in 2008, so I had to wait until it was released on DVD some time later, and then I ordered a copy and waited on tenterhooks for it to arrive. It finally did, I popped in the disc to watch it, and…UGH. I remember really, really not liking it, and being so disappointed at the fact that, not only did it not have any similarities or much continuity with the first two movies in the trilogy, but it might as well have not even been directed by Dario Argento at all. Where was the style, the Grand Guignol? Sure, there was copious gore, but where was that pizazz, man, that Dario magic? I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed in a film, even after I had specifically tried not to get my hopes up too much. It was a real bummer.

Fast forward to 2022. Literally all I had remembered from my experience of watching Mother of Tears was how much I thought it sucked, and a vague recollection of a woman getting impaled through the cooch. Browsing through Tubi’s horror selections very recently, I noticed Mother of Tears scrolling by, and I thought to myself that it was perhaps time to revisit the movie that had broken my heart so miserably back in 2009, just to see if perhaps I had been too hard on it all those years ago. I do like to give films, particularly ones made my people I greatly admire, the benefit of a second watch, to ensure I wasn’t just in a really bad mood that tainted my viewing enjoyment the first time. So I settled in, genuinely curious as to how this experiment was going to play out.

And for the first third of the film or so, I did actually think that I had been too unkind to Mother of Tears originally. Sure, it wasn’t a great film by any means, but since I already knew going in that it wasn’t going to be a beautiful, garish feast for the senses like Suspiria or Inferno, I could assess it on its own merits instead of immediately comparing it unfavorably to its classic predecessors. The setup was intriguing, the opening gore sequences were brutal and well done, the Claudio Simonetti score was decent, if not as memorable as some of his earlier work.

But then the whole thing started to go downhill, and I began to remember why I had so disliked the film back in 2009. By the time the ludicrous, anticlimactic third act rolled around, I was snickering and shaking my head, ruminating on how far the mighty had fallen. While I’m not going to sit here and say that Mother of Tears is the worst of Dario’s later films—I think most people would agree that that dubious honor goes to the execrable Dracula 3D from 2012—I do think it suffers quite a bit from a lazy, messy script, lackluster visuals, exceedingly uneven acting performances, and an almost spiteful refusal to take the mythology and the legacy of the first two movies seriously. There are some good elements here, and in some ways I liked this film slightly better than the recent Dark Glasses, just because it was more entertaining in regards to the stupidity of some of its choices (whereas Dark Glasses was mostly just pedestrian), but overall, I found myself disappointed in the movie all over again, only this time with the added crankiness that has seeped into my psyche over the ensuing decade or so since I saw it the first time.

At the beginning of Mother of Tears, a construction crew working in Viterbo Cemetery unearths a coffin festooned with metal crosses, that’s topped with another, smaller coffin (or urn). The coffin containing the body is reburied, but the urn, with its unusual markings, is sent to a museum in Rome for study. It’s here that the object crosses paths with the assistant curator, Giselle (played by Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni), and an art restoration student, Sarah Mandy (played by Asia Argento). The two women just can’t wait to dig into this weird little find, and stay late at the museum to do just that.

Inside the urn are three ceramic figures (presumably representing the Three Mothers), a ceremonial dagger, and a red tunic-type thing with writing on it that Giselle calls a talisman. After Giselle conveniently cuts her finger and drips blood on the box lid, Sarah leaves the room to fetch a couple of books to help them translate the strange letters, but when she returns, she sees three hunched figures absolutely annihilating Giselle; I mean, pestle in the mouth, total disemboweling, the whole ball of wax. Oh, and also there’s a baboon that chases Sarah, for some reason; and as she’s fleeing the museum, she’s initially trapped by locked doors, but then hears a woman’s voice in her head telling her to go, at which point the doors slam open by themselves. I will give points to this scene for being reasonably well shot, having some really fucked-up violence, and (finally) featuring a female character who immediately takes off her high heeled shoes so she can run the fuck away from the danger. Also, the monkey is rad and adorable and needs his or her own spinoff.

Unsurprisingly, when Sarah informs the police what happened to Giselle, mentioning the baboon and the three hunchbacked figures, the officers smirk condescendingly at her, believing she’s either crazy and/or the murderer. They allow her to leave, though, at which point she goes to the home of the museum curator who is also her boyfriend, Michael Pierce (played by Adam James), telling him about the weird voice she heard that pretty much saved her life. Michael is something of a believer in the supernatural, though Sarah is very skeptical, and fears she might be losing her mind.

Meanwhile, a spate of escalating savagery is occurring all around Rome. Guys tussle in the streets and wreck cars with bats, two dudes shoot a cop, a woman tosses her baby over a bridge and it smacks into the abutment on the way down, in a pretty shocking scene that could only be from an Italian film. Amidst the unfolding chaos, Michael is interested in the urn and its contents, and whether it was connected to Giselle’s murder; he actually goes to Viterbo to talk to the Monsignor who oversaw the find, but it turns out he had a stroke not long after the urn was discovered, and all he can do is pass Michael a piece of paper with the words Mater Lachrymarum written on it, which the other priests think is meaningless nonsense.

Sarah, on the other hand, is doing her own investigation, and happens to meet a woman who knew her mother Elisa (played by Asia Argento’s real-life mother, Daria Nicolodi). Elisa supposedly died in a car crash when Sarah was a child, but this woman, Marta (played by Valeria Cavalli) tells her that Elisa was actually a powerful white witch who was murdered by Mater Suspiriorum during a witch fight back in the day. Another helpful individual, Padre Johannes (played by the inimitable Udo Kier) mentions that Mater Suspiriorum was finally defeated by a dance student named Suzy Bannion, a nice callback to Suspiria (and Udo Kier was in Suspiria as well, playing a similar expositional role, though not at all the same character). Sarah realizes that the voices she’s been hearing and the seemingly supernatural help she’s received are likely from her dead mother, and she further realizes that she probably has the same powers, though of course they are underdeveloped. Early on in the movie, however, she is able to elude capture by standing in the corner of a library and willing herself to be invisible to onlookers, so there’s that.

Sarah’s paranormal gifts are confirmed not too long after, when she begins to see the apparition of her mother appearing to her and telling her to do things, and while it was nice to see Daria Nicolodi again, I wish the ghost effects hadn’t been so damn cheesy, and I wish the dialogue she’d been given wasn’t so flimsy and repetitive.

Anyway, through all of this brouhaha, it’s established that Giselle opening and bleeding on the urn awoke the youngest and cruelest of the Three Mothers, the powerful witch Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears. Her whole schtick is causing madness, pandemonium, and despair, hence the (admittedly pretty low-key) crime wave happening around Rome. Her awakening has also drawn the attention of all the other evil witches in the world, who begin to flock to the Eternal City, hoping to cause what the movie calls “the second fall of Rome.”

When I spoke earlier about this film not taking the mythology all that seriously, this aspect of the plot is one of the main things I’m talking about. At one stage, Sarah sees a gaggle of these arriving witches at a train station, and they look like nothing so much as a gang of loud, obnoxious, Lucky-Star-era-Madonna cosplayers, whooping and hollering like sorority girls at a bachelorette party and deliberately shoving people out of their way like bullies in an 80s John Hughes joint (only lacking the obligatory sneer of “NERDS!”). They’re not frightening or sinister in any way, and I’m mystified as to why Argento chose to portray them in this fashion, because they absolutely do not seem to pose any threat, other than to the eardrums of those closest to them. I did quite enjoy the one witch chasing Sarah onto a train and getting her head smooshed in the sliding bathroom door, however, though that’s exactly emblematic of what I mean; just how terrifying can a powerful witch be when you can easily slam her melon in the door of the nearest shitter and make her eyeball pop out? I ask you.

Anyway, various other things happen: both the witches and the cops pursue Sarah while her ghost mom advises her; Michael’s son gets abducted and presumably killed by the witches, though strangely, this isn’t shown; Michael also gets killed (I think) and comes back as a sort of zombie before disappearing from the film altogether; Udo Kier gets his face turned into hamburger with a cleaver; Marta and her girlfriend get brutally murdered, Marta by having a spear shoved up her vag; a mom eats her little boy.

At last, there’s a confrontation between Sarah, Mater Lachrymarum, and the witch coven down in some catacombs, but it’s literally one of the lamest final battles in cinema history, as all Sarah has to do to defeat the witch is pull off her magic Flashdance tunic with a spear and Mater dies screaming. I don’t really understand why so much time was invested on Sarah developing her witchcraft powers if she wasn’t going to fight the Mother of Tears with, y’know, witchcraft. Is it implied that she was the only one who could have bested the witch by literally just taking her top off? Or could anyone have done that at any time? I’ll note too that the few times we see the Mother of Tears prior to the last showdown, she isn’t wearing the tunic; she’s wearing a black, sheer, hooded robe thing with one boob exposed. There are lots (AND LOTS) of boobs in this movie, by the way. Not that I’m complaining; they’re all nice boobs. So if you like looking at pretty boobs, then that’s a point in the movie’s favor.

After the witch and all her followers perish, having staged the only attempted satanic world takeover that hinged solely on a single person wearing a shirt (sorry, I can’t get past that), Sarah and one of the cops, Enzo—who had been hostile and chasing her before this, but now believes her I guess, but was barely in the movie otherwise, so not sure why he gets to be adjunct final girl here—climb through an admittedly really yucky series of tunnels containing dead bodies and lumpy corpse juice, then they climb out of a manhole and into the dawn of a very clearly green-screened city backdrop. They sit there in the street and laugh hysterically, and then the credits roll. Yep.

Now, I know it sounds like I’m completely shitting all over the movie here, and I guess I kind of am, but as I mentioned, it does have some good things about it. The kills and gore are great: really violent, creative, and fucked up, especially the stuff involving babies and kids, which you probably wouldn’t see in an American horror film. The first act of the movie, while not amazing, is fairly engaging, and gets you interested in the escalating mystery.

But then it all starts falling apart. The witches are not intimidating or scary at all, and just seem like a bunch of silly, cackling teenagers trying to look like edgy mid-2000s scene kids. The special effects having to do with Sarah’s mom look pretty dire, and to be honest, ghost-mom doesn’t really have much meaningful information to give even when she does appear. There’s even a bit where mom tells Sarah she doesn’t have any more time and can’t talk to her again, but then she returns literally one scene later to tell her more stuff!

There was also the whole final battle I alluded to earlier, which was resolved far too easily, especially after all the buildup about Sarah finding out the truth about her mother and about her own supernatural powers. And while the cinematography here is…fine, it isn’t anything special, and doesn’t have any of the surreal, nightmarish, super-saturated glamor and style of the first two films, which made them such fabulous eye candy. This movie frankly looks like it could have been directed and shot by anyone. Also, the acting is not all that great across the board, with several characters overreacting or underreacting; I’ve seen Asia Argento do some good acting work, but she’s very uneven here, decent in some scenes and awkward in others.

I think the concept and the story of the movie is a good one; it’s just the execution that’s lacking. Personally, I would have dropped the whole “witch gathering” subplot and just made it so that Mater Lachrymarum herself was the one causing all the destruction, so it would make her seem much more powerful and villainous. I also would have had her not talk, and kept her more in the shadows; she could still be sexy and beautiful, like she was in the movie (and that’s how she was described in the original de Quincey essay anyway), but I would have made her much creepier and more threatening. I didn’t mind the revelation of Sarah’s white witch powers, but I think I would have abandoned the mom-apparition angle; maybe just have her mother communicate with her in some other ghostly way, like maybe through a medium or other type of supernatural message. I also would have beefed up the big face-off between Sarah and the Mother of Tears at the end, making it revolve more around magic and less around simple disrobing. But those are just some meaningless suggestions from a random horror lover on the internet, so feel free to disregard.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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