Venice 2021 review: 107 Mothers (Péter Kerekes)

“107 Mothers is at once an affecting narrative and an incisive look at a very specific segment of Ukrainian society.”

Award-winning documentarist Péter Kerekes is the latest in a string of directors making the switch to fiction filmmaking. His debut feature 107 Mothers, a look at life behind the high walls of a Ukrainian women’s prison, is a promising first foray into feature films for the Slovak director, whose strong observational visual stamp clearly shows his past in the world of non-fiction. This makes 107 Mothers an emotionally hard film to penetrate at first, but makes the payoff all the more moving.

Shot in a prison in Odesa, 107 Mothers is a film about two women on either side of the system. Lyesa is a young woman who killed her cheating husband in a flash of jealousy. Sentenced to 7 years, Lyesa is expecting her first child, which she will have to deliver in jail. Irina is a guard at the prison, tasked with reading all communication between inmates and the outside world and censoring it where deemed necessary. Somewhat older, single and without family other than a mother who visits her from time to time, Irina lives the skewed relationships of the women she monitors through the letters they receive, which dampens her own outlook on finding love despite her mother’s attempts to talk her into marriage.

Lyesa is not the only pregnant woman inside. The prison nursery is filled with young children, none of them older than 3 years, as that is the age at which the children are sent to an orphanage if no home has been found for them by their mothers before that time. Lyesa desperately tries to place her newborn Kolya with her family, who are reluctant to take in the boy. Can Irina, whose motherly feelings have been on the back burner because of her view of men, provide a solution?

Kerekes’s history as a documentary filmmaker leaves its marks all over 107 Mothers. Conversations between Irina and several of the women are shot as interviews, with only Irina’s voice as indicator she is in the scene. Dropping in and out of casual conversations between inmates does nothing more than deepen the lived-in feel of the film, as does naturalist acting by what seems to be a cast of mostly non-professionals shot in a fly-on-the-wall style. Kerekes has said one of his main inspirations was the oeuvre of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, and there certainly are clear parallels in style, but the director’s main influence seems to be his own non-fiction work, and it makes 107 Mothers all the better. Even though there is a dramatic narrative arc woven into the film, it just as easily can be seen as a documentary on the Ukrainian prison system.

And as such, 107 Mothers is an interesting glimpse into a world we rarely see. A decrepit building housing women all dressed in the same outfit, including socks in bath slippers. Row calls every morning, then prison labor, which can range from sewing to making glittery decorations for cakes. Getting rid of excess breast milk, since they are only allowed, in groups, to breast feed their children occasionally. The daily, monotonous routine, through winter and summer and back again, interspersed with Irina’s conversations with the women. These talks paint a picture of harsh life for Ukrainian women, full of disastrous relationships rife with abuse. The arcs of Lyesa and Irina are the thread that ties all these observations together, making 107 Mothers at once an affecting narrative and an incisive look at a very specific segment of Ukrainian society.