When the Author Is the Auteur | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

When the Author Is the Auteur 

In Rodrigo Garcia's films the writer is the boss—for better or worse.

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Mother and Child

Mother and Child

mother and child written and directed by rodrigo garcia

When Rodrigo Garcia, the writer and director of Mother and Child, was asked during a Q and A at the Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute how he went about directing actors, he replied, "Well, the script, whether you wrote it or not, that is the big piece of direction. . . . So if you wrote it and they agree with it . . . if you see eye-to-eye, if you have your contract with an actor, then I'm scared to direct any more than that, because then I'm in their head."

This notion of the writer as director, and the screenplay as a contract, is fairly unusual in the movie business—especially on big studio films, where writers revise scripts on the set to please anyone from the director to the producer to the stars. But Garcia's attitude makes particular sense when you consider his background: his father is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. It also may explain a great deal about his three feature films, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (2000), Nine Lives (2005) and now Mother and Child. They're writerly in the best sense of the word: they focus on characters, and the story springs from who these people are rather than putting them through their paces. When Garcia's films succeed they do so on the strength of his writing, and when they fail their shortcomings can usually be traced back to the writing as well.

His best film to date is Nine Lives, a series of intertwined vignettes that reveal the pain of nine different women. Each segment unfolds in real time and was shot in a single take lasting nine or ten minutes, making the film a real showcase for the actors. (Garcia, who got his start as a cinematographer, had his hands full just choreographing the camerawork.) Robin Wright Penn is a pregnant woman whose life is turned upside down when she runs into an old lover at the supermarket; Lisa Gay Hamilton is an adult survivor of sexual abuse who returns to her father's home armed with a pistol; Amy Brenneman shows up with her parents at the funeral of her ex-husband's second wife and winds up having a quickie with her ex in a private room. The format of linked stories has become an indie cliche in the years since Pulp Fiction, but Garcia's vignettes manage to achieve the resonance of a literary short story, using tightly isolated moments to lay bare the truth of a person's life.

Unfortunately, Garcia's movies can also be writerly in the worst sense of the word, exposing not the characters but the writer. Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her suffers most from this sort of clumsiness; it too weaves together stories of several women but without the later film's narrative rigor. Sometimes when Garcia needs to fill in a character he'll channel pages of omniscient narration through some faux-mystical figure: an unhappy doctor (Glenn Close) gets a tarot reading so emotionally precise it might have been dictated by her psychotherapist, and a no-nonsense bank officer (Holly Hunter) strikes up a glancing acquaintance with a hoary old bag lady who subjects her to a series of preternaturally exact character analyses. Garcia also has a penchant for disabled characters (in Nine Lives, a deaf-mute man; in Things You Can Tell, a dwarf and a blind woman), and more often than not their disability is tossed lazily into the mix as a bit of exotica.

Mother and Child follows the same formula that has served Garcia so well in the past—the main characters are all women, and their separate stories are intertwined as the film progresses—but here he's made an effort to refine and strengthen it. In Nine Lives and Things You Can Tell, the stories were more numerous and distinct, set off by titles and linked mostly by the device of having the main character from one turn up as a supporting character in another. Here Garcia confines himself to just three stories, and though a Catholic adoption agency figures prominently in all of them, they're linked by fate rather than coincidence. Karen (Annette Bening), a deeply unhappy 51-year-old woman who lives with her mother, longs to make contact with the daughter she gave up for adoption 37 years earlier; Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), the daughter in question, has become an icily self-sufficient attorney with a taste for illicit sexual encounters; and Lucy (Kerry Washington) is a barren young woman whose desperate need to adopt a child is pushing her husband away.

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