Hans Otto Nicolayssen
Adiós Mamá is in many ways a traditional short film (with the customary surprise ending) that focuses on a small segment of a seemingly simple everyday incident. But what exactly is it about this movie that draws my attention?
Each year it is my duty (and privilege!) to read through and evaluate hundreds of scripts, drafts and general ideas for short films. And I must confess, had I been given a manuscript like Adiós Mamá it probably would have ended up in the "refusal" pile due to its lack of originality. But it's precisely the simple nature of this film that is it's greatest quality. Even though I haven't read the script, it seems like the director has fully realized the potential of this little story. The film is directed with unpretentious ease and daring simplicity, because this is really not an easy film to direct; it contains no apparent visual challenges, the whole thing is more or less a simple dialogue scene with two people. In a way, this could be one of the exceptions to the "rule" that a good short film doesn't contain dialogue. In this case the director deserves credit for giving the dialogue added "weight"and making it special.
This is what makes this a film in contrast to filmed reality. This little scene in a supermarket - that appears to be an authentic situation - is staged as something more unreal and portrayed in a filmic fashion in order to replace the very reality one wishes to express. Film isn't only what we see, but also what we experience while we're watching it. Keeping this in mind, it's evident that the director of Adiós Mamá is gifted. If we take a closer look at the film we can see that a number of good choices have been made. Picking out actors is done early on when making a film. Here, the director has made some wise decisions. Both of the actors have a look of melancholy, almost sad eyes, something that further enables them to act out this little tragedy we're served. Their faces evoke a sense of empathy that we're supposed to have for both the characters and the situation in itself. This is further accentuated by the choices of the turning points in both dialogue and acting.
The "mother" discovers her "son", he senses her gaze of recognition and starts to feel uncomfortable. Then she says: "You look like my son".
The first spoken line in a film is always critical. This is a point where it's crucial for the director to get the viewer involved in the characters and the given situation - it even sets the tone for the rest of the movie. As a result of this, I think nuances in acting, facial expression and chosen turning points are essential in making the audience believe in what's being said.
In other words, there's something to be said for the old "rule": "Action before dialogue". In Adiós Mamá the director and editor have truly taken this to heart; the cuts from "mother" to "son" are done with perfect timing. The chosen framing of the different shots makes them work well with each other since they're composed with the "negative room" in mind - the illusion of the third dimension. We "see" the line of people waiting, the cashier, the groceries, the place is well documented and thus gives us the feeling of being "present" in the room.
The flow of time is also conveyed with an intelligent use of music and sound, perhaps one of the hidden qualities of the film. It starts off with low-pitched strings. Later on, the turning points are accentuated by a few notes from the cello. But what's even more noteworthy is the way the sounds from the cash register and the supermarket in general are woven in and out of the soundtrack to further enhance the twists and turns of the dialogue. This creates a recurring sense of "frozen time", which in turn opens up the spoken text so that the audience can get even closer to the characters.
The scene with these two main characters is acted out while the cashier is registering the "mother's" groceries. Here, the director gives proof of his craftmanship by "concealing" the fact that the cashier doesn't add up her bill and ask her to pay.
He actually chooses to ignore what we would logically expect to happen in real life. With seamless and natural directing he makes us accept the fact that the "mother" freely walks away without paying. He manages to prevent the audience from going: "Hey, isn't she supposed to pay?". The entire surprise at the end would have been totally ruined had he not succeded with this. Even though it may sound banal, I believe this problem of what I would call the "the logical course of action in real life", and the filmic ways of handling it, is a true test of craftmanship in a director.
If these kinds of situations are portrayed the right way, the audience will never notice anything or be bothered by any lack of logic, but if it's done the wrong way it can be fatal.
So how does the director treat this problem in Adiós Mamá?
First of all, from the very beginning he never reveals just how many groceriesthe man is buying and how many the "mother" has picked out and that are being registered by the cashier. The shots are composed in such a way that we only get the feeling that she's actually hoarded quite a lot of stuff (which indeed she has!). Secondly, and this is perhaps one the most ingenious techniques a director can employ, he diverts our attention by staging a little situation where the cashier has trouble registering one of his groceries! The result is that we forget all about the "mother"and the whole question of whether or not she has payed. This keeps us occupied with another "problem" and actually gives the payoff added effect.
In a surprisingly short amount of time, from the introductory shots to the situation itself, I find myself carried away by this mother who has lost her son, and how this "son" is acted upon. We all recognize this tense feeling when some complete stranger comes too close. First you reject the person, then you become aggressive.
But when the man hears that the old woman's son died in a car accident, he reacts with understanding and empathy - he's even willing to help her get through her grief by saying goodbye to her with the words: Adiós Mamá, only to discover that he's been hustled and that we humans can be both cunning and cruel.
This aspect of the film reminds me of the fact that we humans share many social experiences in our everyday lives and that we can experience minor or huge tragedies whether we live in Mexico or Norway. Afterwards we're left wondering, with many unanswered questions, before we go home to make dinner.
It wasn't more than that. But that's not bad in five mintues!
That's the way short film is - neither more, nor less.
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