Having seen Monica, the new film from Italian writer-director Andrea Palaoro, is sure to have divided opinions. Shot in a narrow aspect ratio and composed almost entirely of stills, Monica can be dismissed as a cold exercise in rigid formalism. Other (harder) critics will call its weighty subject matter and rare bursts of frivolity a test of endurance in relentless misery. Let me stop the storm by simply stating that no film so quietly powerful or delicately understated should ever provoke such strong side reactions.
A passion project of sorts for both star Trace Lisette and director Palaor, Monica serves as the second part of an intended trilogy of Palaora films directed by women. And, as with any great mid-act, this tender and soulful work is a significant improvement over its spiritual predecessor, Hanna (2017).
The most outstanding of them all? Palaor’s firmer understanding of what Paul Schrader calls “slow cinema”: working in the spirit of Chantal Akerman Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Bela Tar Sátántangó (1994), or Abbas Kiarostami Cherry flavor (1997), which use sparse camera movements, simple dialogue, long takes, and minimal cuts to better immerse the viewer (and force us to work on parsing so-called core elements like exposition or plot). A dying art according to Schrader, but alive and well here.
We meet our heroine Monica (Lisette) in a solarium. Quiet and unassuming, she handles the heat like a pro — the first indicator of how she’ll handle the intense new reality soon to come. A phone call from a stranger brings news no one wants to hear, especially Monica: her life-failing mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson), is terminally ill and time is running out. She’s shrinking fast, and Monica needs to get there soon if she hopes to see her before it’s too late.
Surely this story sounds familiar to you—you’ve no doubt seen it dozens of times. However, upon her return home, we find out Monica takes a new approach to this common setting.
As it turns out, Monica and her mom haven’t seen (let alone spoken to) each other in over 10 years. In fact, so much time has passed that her mother doesn’t even seem to recognize her own daughter. Time is not the only factor, however. Monica never told Eugenia about the transition before Eugenia’s memory began to fade. Through alternating glimpses of Monica in quiet solitude and engaging in heartfelt conversations with brother Paul (Joshua Close), sister-in-law Laura (Emily Browning), and even Eugenia herself (who sees Monica as just a friend who helps out in her time of need), we can begin to piece together together, who was, is this broken family, and – blame ignorance, blame disease, blame stubbornness, blame death – forever lose the chance to become.
For Monica and Eugenia, the key word is dignity above all else. It was a dignity that kept the daughter estranged from her mother during all their years of separation, and now, in her old age and motherhood, this dignity allows the couple to see eye to eye, perhaps for the first time in their lives. Mother hurt Monika a lot, and you can’t hide this pain – its shadow is present in her every action, from the way she takes care of Evgenia to the way she walks around the place of her childhood. Returning to her mother’s aid in a difficult time does not make her original decision to leave any less meaningful or correct.
Likewise, Eugenia makes no mention of her daughter, even as the end approaches. Does she know Monica’s true identity? Does she recognize a face so close to her own, looking into her eyes with sympathy and compassion, despite everything that has come before? If he does, he doesn’t say a word about it. Lisette and Clarkson are naturally very raw in these roles, and this is never more evident than in the quiet moments when dignity trumps anything that can be said.
Palaor’s screenplay — co-written with Orlando Tirado, who has also co-written all of Palaor’s other works thus far — strikes me as fascinatingly silent. Questions that arise throughout the film (both in the mind of the audience and in the life of the character) are not ignored, but rather … beat around the bush. Palaora deliberately keeps important things quiet, relegating all hints and clues to hushed off-screen conversations, muddled arguments in the background, or one-way phone calls that withhold key information from the viewer. That doesn’t mean we stay in the dark, though: we rely on context to sort out what’s really going on, creating a surprisingly involved yet rewarding viewing experience – straight out of the slow motion playbook.
The camera is no less restrained. Cinematographer Katelyn Arizmendi keeps things calm and leisurely, shooting on gorgeous 35mm and maintaining a tight, almost 1:1 aspect ratio. It provides a much needed respite from the aggressive digital shaky camera style that has practically taken over the Intimate Indie Character Study subgenre. There’s a different (read: worse) version of this movie, peppered with teary, Academy-seeking monologues and flashy cinematography. luckily Monica respects its characters and audience too much to be so trite. Palaora’s film is something much more beautiful, much more extraordinary than the banality I’ve come to expect from a modern arthouse portrait.
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