Madre, meaning ‘Mother’ in English, is a Spanish short film written and directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen. The premise is very simple: Marta is at home with her mother when she receives a call from her six year old son, Iván. He is on holiday with his father, who has left and not returned, leaving him alone on the beach. The rest of the film consists of a series of alarming revelations, as the danger Iván is in becomes more and more terrifyingly apparent to Marta. Sorogoyen gradually ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable level, so Madre certainly isn’t for those after a light, relaxing watch.
Madre is constructed with precision and economy to be as nerve-racking an experience as possible. First we find that Iván’s father has gone, then we find out that he does not even know if he is in Spain or France, next we find that the mobile phone he is using to call his mother is running critically low on battery, finally we discover that there is an adult stranger on the beach who has noticed him, and the tension reaches fever pitch. The decision to only show Marta’s side of the phone call is very effective, leaving the audience as helpless and clueless as she is. This makes the film all the more agonising, for example in the heart-breaking moment when Marta desperately asks a sobbing Iván for any markers to identify where he is, to which he can only reply, ‘rocks… sand’, leaving Marta, and by extension the audience, as lost and powerless as ever.
Probably the film’s most notable feature is the fact that it is almost entirely composed of one long shot. At the beginning of the film there is a sense of detachment as Marta moves freely around her apartment in and out of the gaze of the camera, gossiping with her mother. However, once Iván calls and her fear sets in, the camera begins to follow her increasingly closely, until the end of the shot, which is a closeup of Marta’s terrified, tearstained face. This technique works well, drawing us inexorably into Marta’s world and managing to be striking and unique without feeling gimmicky. The only other shots in the film are the opening and closing ones, which are slow, portentous panning shots of the empty beach, leaving the audience with a chilling sense of Iván’s utter isolation in a vast, uncaring world.
Madre has been shortlisted for an Oscar and has won a Goya, the Spanish equivalent of a BAFTA, for best Fictional Short Film 2018, and these accolades are well deserved. I was genuinely moved by the end of the film, which in a mere sixteen minutes managed to get me to a state of stress so intense that I could actually feel my heart beating faster. However, despite this I found that the film didn’t really leave much of a long lasting emotional impact. While it is understandably limited by the fact that it is a short film, I feel that it could do with more of a sense of the characters of Marta and Iván as people. It shows them reduced to their primal cores of terrified child and helpless mother- and does a brilliant job of doing so, but maybe a few more minutes spent establishing an emotional baseline before plunging the characters into turmoil might create more investment in them, as well as heightening the impact of the devastating ending. Nevertheless, it is still undeniably skilfully constructed, and if you can handle sixteen solid minutes of precision engineered stress, then it is thoroughly recommended.