With Madre, writer/director Aaron Burns explores the dangers of dismissing maternal instincts with a cautionary tale that’s part psychological thriller, part body horror, and 100% unnerving to watch. It’s evident that Burns’ previous experiences within the genre world have served him well, because with Madre, he does a masterful job creating a harrowing and horrifying predicament that anyone can relate to, regardless of their parental status.
Madre centers on Diana Prieto (Daniela Ramírez), who has more than she can handle on her plate. Her son, Martin (Matías Bassi), has a severe case of autism and suffers from violent outbursts, with a tendency to hurt himself and lash out his mother, who is now pregnant with her second child. Her husband, Tomás (Cristobal Tapia Montt) travels frequently to Japan for business, which leaves Diana harried and ready to throw in the towel. One day, Martin goes into a rage at a local supermarket, where a store employee by the name of Luz (Aida), is able to calm him down with just a few Filipino words. Realizing the woman could be of great assistance to her, Diana hires Luz to become Martin’s nanny, and the young boy’s transformation into a child with normal development and behavioral patterns is almost instantaneous.
At first, Diana is relieved, because her son is thriving under Luz’s care, but she begins to suspect her nanny is influencing Martin in some sinister ways through her exclusive use of the Filipino language as her means of communication with the child. As her pregnancy gets further along, and the more time Luz spends living inside her house, Diana begins to feel threatened that the seemingly kind and sensitive woman is not only trying to harm Diana, but steal Martin and her entire life away from her.
As the old adage goes, if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is, which is the central lesson to Burns’ Madre, an effectively creepy pot-boiler of a thriller that keeps viewers guessing over just what exactly is happening, especially since we’re constantly questioning Diana’s ability to be a reliable viewpoint of the story. As her pregnancy hormones take their toll, Diana’s ability to control what is happening inside of her home starts to slip, and that’s when Burns cranks his narrative up to even weirder heights, making us wonder if Diana is truly paranoid about everything, or if Luz is really up to no good.
Beyond creating a compelling story, both Burns and DP (director of photography) Antonio Quercia do a brilliant job allowing the visuals in Madre to feel like an essential component of the film. As Diana struggles through her everyday life, doing her best to navigate through the chaos, the creative duo’s approach is more sullen and desaturated, reflecting Diana’s frustrations and inability to cope with her situation. But once Luz arrives, the look of Madre changes—things feel brighter, we see more clean lines in the composition of shots, reflecting how Luz’s presence adds so much light into the Prieto family’s world and re-establishing some order. It’s little touches like that that really made me appreciate just what Burns put into Madre to make it stand out amongst its similarly-themed cinematic peers.
As far as the performances go in Madre, Ramirez gives a wonderfully complex portrayal of a mother who isn’t always the most likeable, and the actress handles Diana’s insecurities with an incredible sense of nuance. Because she’s been left to care for Martin for so long, and usually on her own, Ramirez’s character has built up something of a resentment towards both her husband and her troubled child. And while Diana does have some deep-seeded fears about whether or not her impending bundle of joy will be born with similar issues as Martin, she also sees the new baby as something of an opportunity for a fresh start as a parent. Ramirez nails those conflicted emotions perfectly.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention both Bassi and Aida’s work in Madre, because they’re both equally fantastic in the film. It’s hard to explain just why their characters work as well as they do, as it might give away some of the film’s surprises, but both performers do a lot with very minimal dialogue, and it’s all great.
A mix of parental fears, guilt, and xenophobia with a Hand That Rocks the Cradle vibe to it, Burns delivers a helluva genre debut with Madre. Not only is it a disconcerting psychological thriller with some great body horror moments peppered throughout, it’s also a thoughtful parable about whether or not parents are too focused on having “perfect” kids, instead of just having good kids that they can still pour their love into, imperfections and all. It was recently announced that Netflix will be distributing Madre here in the States, and I wholly recommend genre fans to give it a watch once it comes home later this year.
Movie Score: 4/5
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