Maternal review: motherly care in sisterly solidarity

Maura Delpero’s portrait of young women who find a haven to raise their families in a religious community is disarmingly funny and moving.

Maternal premieres in the UK on 9 October 2019 at the BFI London Film Festival

Katherine McLaughlin

Denise Carrizo as Fatima, Lidiya Liberman as Sister Paola and Agustina Malale as Luciana in Maternal (Hogar)

Denise Carrizo as Fatima, Lidiya Liberman as Sister Paola and Agustina Malale as Luciana in Maternal (Hogar)

Lu (Agustina Malale) and Fatima (Denise Carrizo) have been firm friends since childhood. Now 17, they are both holed up in a shelter for teen mums with their relationship starting to become unfixed when a novitiate, Sister Paola (Lidiya Liberman), enters the picture and upsets the equilibrium. The three leads are a mix of non-professional and trained actors who create a testy and fiery trinity of womanhood, each dealing with devotion in her own unique way.

Director Maura Delpero spent four years in an Italian religious centre in Buenos Aires observing the interactions between the nuns and the young women in their care. Duly inspired, she mounts an impressive drama that explores the bonds of motherhood and friendship with a deep emotional intelligence. This is Delpero’s first fictional narrative feature after her award nominated documentary Nadea and Sveta, which also cannily blurred the lines between fiction and reality.

From the outset, Fati is loud and vivacious: she’s introduced pruning her pubic hair, not a hint of insecurity about her body, in preparation for her monthly night out on the town. Her adorable daughter Nina (Isabella Cilia) occasionally waddles off from nap time to visit her for a cuddle, but Fati seems more preoccupied with an abusive lover.

Liberman as Sister Paola

Liberman as Sister Paola

Lu, nine months pregnant with her second child, is more introverted and, unlike her best friend, keen to adhere to the rules. She feels nurtured by the sisters even if her peers are all side-eyes and contempt for the lessons the nuns attempt to teach. When Fati runs away, abandoning Nina, Sister Paola takes on the role of caregiver.

In a film where the only male who appears on screen is a young child, the oppressive hand of patriarchy is still felt heavily, weighing down each woman with burden, longing and regret. You can see it in simple acts such as the recurring image of body hair removal for male approval, and more deeply in the bruises on Fati’s face when she makes a prodigal return. Delpero chooses to show how women help one another with the fallout, with the nuns a strict but kindly presence who provide a haven for the women away from men. With safety comes sacrifice, and Delpero skilfully presenting how each woman rebels and complies.

Maternal (Hogar, 2019)

It’s not all roses; there are arguments and tantrums galore, but with that comes understanding as the women express their emotions in a way that rings true to life. For Fati, sexual liberation comes hand in hand with violence; for Lu there’s the suggestion that abuse brought her to the shelter; and for Paola, servitude to God prevents her from giving her love to Nina.

Maternal works on multiple levels by showing the complexities of caregiving and love. It toys with religious symbolism and its themes of temptation and freedom by steering away from harsh judgement. It’s a nuanced depiction of motherhood that’s disarmingly moving and charmingly funny and so naturalistically acted you can imagine these women living on your street.

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