Haute-dementia enthusiasts (like Juno Macduff) will lavish praise onto Dario Argento's latest feature The Mother of Tears, the long-gestating climax to art-schlock trilogy Three Mothers. Fans of Argento tend to gush over any film bearing the director's name, even if they don't like it, because in the prickly world of art-house horror, deferring to the master's judgment is safer than trusting one's own gut. Where you fall on The Mother of Tears depends on whether you buy Argento's tongue-in-cheek routine as more than just posturing: those who make a case for the movie are able to laugh with the director, but I couldn't make it through the film's short runtime without laughing at him.
Like its sister pieces -- Suspira (1977) and Inferno (1980) -- The Mother of Tears is a romp through supernatural realms of sexploitation, gore, and occultism, but it pushes too violently at the boundaries of Argento’s form. Here, the cult maestro tests the limits of his famously first-class camp and finds (or does he?) that the line between art and clumsy kitsch is as thin as his plots and dialogue.
Sarah (Asia Argento) is an art curator who receives an ancient urn mysteriously unearthed from a burial ground. When she opens it — the contents are a dagger and three talismanic statuettes (The Three Mothers) — she unwittingly frees the spirit of Mater Lacrimarum (Moran Atias), who brings on the second fall of Rome: babies are tossed from bridges, women are eviscerated and hung by their intestines, priest skulls are smashed with axes. Shopworn supernatural mayhem. The coming apocalypse, of course, is signaled by the arrival, via Boeing 747, of a gaggle of goth-pop witches who look like extras borrowed from the set of an ’80s hair band music video. They cackle like hyenas at innocent bystanders at baggage claim and proceed to stalk Sarah through Rome over the course of the next few days, causing cars to crash, churches to burn, and inexplicable fights to erupt between shadowy figures in the background of shots. The soundtrack to Rome’s self-destruction is an untzy minimalist techno.
Sarah’s burden is to undo the damage uncorked by her Pandorean curiosity, a task she accomplishes all too easily in the final scene, in which she finds Lacrimarum presiding over an underground orgy of cannibalism, witchcraft, sorcery, and a host of other as-yet-unnamed, bizarre rituals (a woman eating Laffy Taffy from another’s anus sticks out). Guiding her along are the ghost of Sarah’s mother (Daria Nicolodi), who appears to her in shimmering visions wearing a marvelously campy nightgown (did she die in her sleep?), and, inexplicably, an alchemist played by Udo Kier.
Nowhere is Argento’s baroque Gothicism more on display than in the final moments, when Sarah must escape from the ornery subterranean party by crawling through a cavernous passage knee-high in bodily fluids, feces, and decomposing bodies, all of which, somehow, are cascading down on her head. Is this visionary delirium or simply Argento testing the boundaries of his own daughter’s faith in his vision? Either way, Asia Argento’s performance, a well-tuned composition of sexy naiveté and high-pitched notes of faux distress, is an exercise in self-conscious pastiche, and thus a departure from the other performances, which are just plain bad, and not purposely so.
One of the film’s strengths is the manner in which it plays on the audience's ever-heightening expectations. As in a tour of an occult emporium replete with jarred fetuses and winged bat-babies, visceral curiosity holds our attention. The film is dripping with the aesthetic of black magic, which keeps your eyes from averting and your brain from working. Visually, it does bear the authentic imprint of its oddball mastermind, but it is less elegant and consistent than its predecessors, and the effects are cheaper. A baby is lobbed over a bridge, but what hits the water is very clearly a plastic doll, for instance, and a burning church looks more like a photograph with fake-fireplace flames superimposed onto it, willy-nilly. Some may argue that this is all so much purposeful burlesque, but I am unconvinced. Argento’s satire, as madcap as it is, has never been so uncontrolled, never plunged into self-parody. It is one thing to poke fun at a genre, but quite another to leave an audience wondering if you’re making fun of yourself, making fun.