Pingyao 2021 review: Mama, I’m Home (Vladimir Bitokov)

Mama, I’m Home is a plea for compassion towards the mothers who suffer the consequences from the wars their countries never stop waging.”

Don’t ask questions and don’t rock the boat. Living in an authoritarian system these are the rules you need to live by, lest you be ostracized or worse. Despite a subtle sardonic streak throughout Vladimir Bitokov’s sophomore film Mama, I’m Home, the grim reality of a crushing apparatus that destroys anything that goes against the grain looms large over this tale of a mother who refuses to accept a harsh truth. But is it the truth?

Anyone who has seen Kantemir Balagov’s Tesnota will know that life in Kabardino-Balkaria, a Russian republic located in the Caucasus, is not the stuff of dreams. On the outskirts of its capital Nalchik, bus driver Tonya (Kseniya Rappoport) waits for her son Zhenka to return from Syria, where he is fighting for a private military contractor, a job she has persuaded him to take. When an anonymous uniform shows up on her doorstep to tell her Zhenka was killed in action, Tonya refuses to believe it, sure that a mistake was made: didn’t she receive a text message from her son after his purported death? So begins the struggle of one woman against a corrupt and closed-off system, as she tries to uncover the truth about her son’s fate. The more she ruffles local feathers, the more those feathers try to silence her. Lies, bribes, and violence both psychological and physical can’t deter her from her quest. Then a young man shows up at her home claiming to be her son, with all the paperwork to prove it. While everybody around her accepts this as a fact, reluctantly or otherwise, Tonya does not back down from this stranger in her home, but remains hellbent on finding out the truth.

This truth is an ambiguous thing in Mama, I’m Home. Is Zhenka really dead, or are the contractor and the authorities acting shady and evasive because they want to bury a larger secret? Although his death seems all but certain, the answer to this question is never explicitly given, with the evasiveness and the attempts to silence that are built into the system feeding into the suspicion that there is something fishy going on. The question isn’t the point; an examination of the system and life within it is what Mama, I’m Home really is about. The mystery is the ruse. Aided by Ksenia Sereda’s intimate yet furtive cinematography, this lends the film the elements of a thriller as Tonya stumbles further and further into her Kafkaesque nightmare. At its core Mama, I’m Home is a clash between a mother’s unwillingness to face reality and confront her grief, and a political system’s unwillingness to be open about the truth while trying everything in its power, at times to the point of absurdity, to quell any disturbance.

Mama, I’m Home also touches on other thorny subjects, such as Russia’s role in the recent Syrian wars, fought by private contractors but with the tacit support of Moscow. Tacit, because when the truth about it threatens to surface it must be buried in nameless graves in far-away deserts. Corruption, personified by a duo of local bigwigs, is woven in as an almost running gag, as this father-and-son outfit tries to secure state funding for the renovation of a historic dacha by greasing their higher-ups when they are interfered with by Tonya’s crusade.

The film belongs to Rappoport and Yuriy Borisov. Rappoport’s performance gives Mama, I’m Home a dramatic core to build its story on. Her transformation from a woman almost hostile to the daughter who lives with her, to a mother who comes to the devastating realization that her son is really never coming back again, going through defiance, rage, and an unwavering fearlessness along the way, is a thrilling experience to go through. The fact alone that she cares little for her daughter but is willing to go to the end of the world for her son also makes a sly comment on the position of women in Russian society and how this is perpetuated through family lines. Opposite Rappoport, Borisov delivers a terrifying but ultimately heartbreaking portrayal of the young man posing as Tonya’s lost son. The actor is having a banner year, being front and center in two Cannes Competition titles (Compartment No. 6 and Petrov’s Flu) and one in Venice (Captain Volkonogov Escaped), where Mama, I’m Home played in its Orizzonti sidebar.

Bitokov’s direction and framing choices are somewhat flat, save for an inspired scene of shadow-dancing, but Sereda’s warm yet faded colour scheme adds a timelessness to the film that underlines how mothers losing their sons to war is something that is engraved in Russia’s history. “So many wars to choose from,” says one character when asked which war Zhenka died in, emphasizing this point. A history of losing wars, illegal wars, and pointless wars, which explains sweeping them under the rug and silencing everyone that tries to lift it. Mama, I’m Home is a plea for compassion towards the mothers who suffer the consequences from the wars their countries never stop waging.