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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: A couple of powerful mothers

Screen Grabs: A couple of powerful mothers

'Shayda' portrays life in a women's shelter for Iranian mother and child, 'Cabrini' highlights a nun on a mission.

Though its US equivalent is a couple months off still, this Sunday March 10 is Mother’s Day in the UK—a secular celebration, even if it started out as Mothering Sunday, a religious observation dating back to the medieval era. (Separately but related, International Women’s Day is Fri/8 around the world.) Either way, the timing is convenient for two new releases arriving this weekend, one about motherhood, the other about the kind of Mother who wears a cowl. Both films are much concerned with children’s welfare, and strong-willed women fighting for it.

Noora Niasari’s debut feature Shayda is set in 1995 Australia, where like the writer-director herself, its heroine is a emigre from Iran. The titular character (Zar Amir Ebrahimi from the controversial Cannes prize-winner Holy Spider) moved here from Tehran so her husband could finish his medical studies. But when we meet her, she and their daughter are living in a women’s safe house, hiding from Hossein (Osamah Sami), whom Shayda has no intention of going back to.

Six-year-old Mona (Selina Zahednia) doesn’t understand why they are here, having been protected from the worst of her parents’ marital strife—as are we, to a point. But gradually we grasp that Hossein is a controlling, abusive spouse. If this small family were to return to Iran, as was the eventual plan, Shayda would lose custody even if she succeeded in winning a divorce. Her only chance of achieving independence and retaining her child rests on staying in this foreign land.

She has to put up with some slovenly as well as supportive behavior from other women at the shelter, whose very different backgrounds are reflected in the diverse ways they treat what to Shayda is a deadly-serious sanctuary. (One fellow resident is already diving back into the dating pool while on the lam from her ex.) It’s an uneasy forced cohabitation of ill-matched personalities, values and cultures, held together as well as possible by site manager Joyce (Leah Purcell). Our heroine is terrified Hossein might find out their location, particularly once a judge grants him weekly half-day visitation rights. The child is handed over at neutral public meeting spots, but her father—who is quite capable of seeming level-headed and well-intentioned before authorities—uses all his wiles to coax any telltale info out of Mona.

Nor is he his wife’s only nemesis. Traditional roles are so ingrained in the Iranian expat culture here that Shayda cannot trust even sympathetic fellow community members not to betray her. Many of them assume she must somehow be “at fault,” or that in any case a woman is “crazy” to leave a marriage, having few other life options. (Never mind that this is hardly true in Australia.) Even her own mother on the phone back home defends Hossein as a “good father,” as if her daughter’s well-being were ultimately beside the point.

For his part, he simply does not and will not understand his wife’s obstinacy, let alone why she will not bend to his will. He can seem like an intelligent man earnestly bewildered by this abandonment. But we glimpse enough of a scarifying temper to understand exactly why Shayda cannot ever go back to him. His paranoias about her running loose in this “immoral” Western society lead to spying. Naturally he draws the worst possible conclusions when she develops a friendship with Farhad (Mojean Aria), the empathetic male cousin of Elly (Rina Mousavi), an Iranian woman who’s successfully carved out a liberated existence for herself here—the kind Shayda would like to see Mona possess someday.

Eschewing overt melodrama and case-pleading, Niasari’s film (which was evidently inspired somewhat by her own parents’ fallout) assembles small scenes and conflicts like a mosaic—it is only towards the end that we realize the power of the big picture she’s assembled. There are some hair-raising moments, particular a long scene at a party in which the confrontation one has feared finally occurs. There’s a sharp, useful, ironic, yet still-understated tenor to where the narrative finally arrives, a destination perhaps predictable in general gist but not in its particulars.

Though it did not make it to the final list of nominees, Australia’s submission for the current International Feature candidate (whose primary onscreen language is Persian) is definitely one of the year’s more powerful dramas, and well worth seeing. Shayda opens this Fri/8 at SF’s AMC Metreon, with other Bay Area venues hopefully to follow.

The most problematic box-office hit of last year was Sound of Freedom, perhaps the most popular movie amongst a certain political demographic since American Sniper—which was also based on the claimed exploits of an author whose heroics were later determined to have been exaggerated and/or fabricated outright to a considerable degree. Qanon-theory-adjacent as all heck, it had The Passion of the Christ’s Jim Caviezel as Tim Ballard, who has made a career of high-profile crusading against child sex trafficking overseas. That theme cannot help but stir strong emotions; Freedom was well-crafted enough to maximize them.

But by the time it got produced, the real-life Ballard was already known to have… um, issues. His organization Operation Underground Railroad was not transparent about how its huge budget got spent; his own annual salary eventually crept above half a million dollars. While he appears to have done some actual good in the world, he has also claimed adventures for which there is no evidential proof whatsoever, in addition to others in which victims claimed entrapment and false witness. (Notably, his “raids” and such happened outside the U.S. and Europe at least in part because he won’t operate by their laws.)

He’s said he’s a former government agent, yet the government agencies have declined ot confirm that. Most recently, he as forcibly severed from OUR amidst numerous accusations of sexual misconduct, with related lawsuits now pending. He’s a Mormon, a pal of Glenn Beck’s, loudly anti-trans… you get the picture. Needless to say, absolutely none of this was in Freedom, with tearfully resolute Caviezel once again acting as if he’d die for our sins.

Though melodramatically crude in many respects, that film was nonetheless slicker than many of the “faith-based entertainments” it outperformed at the box-office. It suggested better things ahead for director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, a Mexican national whose features to date have all been in the same general inspirational, heart-tugging category. His new Cabrini (also from the last film’s producer-distributor Angel Studios) is indeed better, and bigger—a handsome, expansive period piece. It’s still pretty heavy-handed, but deserves more of the success Freedom won on questionable grounds. However, one doubts it’ll have nearly as much appeal to an evangelical audience base, because this movie is primarily about the practice of altruistic virtue, rather than waggling a judgmental finger at lurid vice.

Cristiana Dell’Anna from the mafioso series Gomorrah plays the title figure, a nun in 1887 Lombardy who despite tubercular ill-health—and the Catholic Church’s scant regard for female enterprise—wants to start a series of missions for orphans in China. The Pope (Giancarlo Giannini) is not persuaded. But Impressed by her chutzpah (OK, that’s probably not the term he used), he does allow her and a half-dozen sisters from her order to go to New York City, which at that point is being flooded with Italian immigrants.

Lured by illusory “streets paved with gold,” those emigres instead often found themselves freezing to death on the unpaved winter ground. Though themselves frequently from once-despised immigrant stock (such as the Irish), the city fathers turn a blind eye to horrors of child labor, poor sanitation, nonexistent medical services et al. in the Five Points slums. Italians (or rather “filthy Dagos”) currently occupy the bottom of this urban society’s totem pole, and it behooves “respectable citizens” to keep them there.

Arriving to learn they’d crossed wires with a letter telling them not to come at all, Mother Cabrini & co. get a rude brushoff from the parish priest (Giampiero Judica), then a somewhat more polite one from the diocese archbishop (David Morse). That last, however, is forced to reluctantly let them stay once shown the Pope’s own written instructions. More welcoming is Vittoria (Romana Vergano), a prostitute with a good heart if a very bad pimp (Giacomo Rocchini). The nuns find no lack of need for their services, particularly among the area’s street children, or those in such desperate straits they live in rat-infested tunnels underground.

But calling attention to such woes only raises the ire of Mayor Gould (John Lithgow in a venomous mode scarcely less caricatured than his Buckeroo Bonzai villain), the most prominent among many well-placed bigots. To get Cabrini’s good works out of the public eye, she is allowed property for an orphanage in the countryside. But she continues to rail against slum conditions, taking her cause to the press when stonewalled elsewhere—a move that, in this account at least, leads to arson, vigilante violence, and other reprisals.

Unsubtle but effective enough in dramatic terms, Cabrini offers an upper-to-lowest-class portrayal of Manhattan about 125 years ago that’s as impressively elaborate as a much more costly enterprise like Gangs of New York. its chiaroscuro lighting effects aestheticize poverty without downplaying it, and anyhow, what is a religious narrative without some pieta-like tableaux?

You can argue that Cabrini herself—who was canonized in 1946, after a life much longer than predicted from her TB-afflicted lungs—is painted here in terms that simplistically pander to current audiences. She’s too virtuous, too determined, too speaking-truth-to-power, unafraid to ask sneering male superiors “is it because I’m a woman?” when they tell her “No” for the nine-thousandth time. And her foes are equally one-dimensional. But as in Freedom, Monteverde’s direction does something to temper if not exactly elevate Rod Barr’s blunt script. Not a work of art, Cabrini is still crafty enough to avoid seeming overmuch of a sermon.

You have to wonder if lighting will strike twice in commercial terms, however—because Monteverde has the nerve to stress how our country was founded on immigration, and the Bible on charity towards strangers. Those sentiments may very well burn a bridge to the xenophobic Trumpsters who embraced Freedom, which comfortably painted “other nations” as bastions of lawlessness populated by coke-snorting child rapists. Cabrini opens in theaters nationwide this Fri/6.

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