A dying mother, a good son who is also a doctor, a quiet sister, a loving though somewhat estranged wife and a nurse, these are all the characters of the beautiful short film by Spanish-born director Eduardo Chapero-Jackson, Alumbramiento. Five characters only, locked into a room - the mother's room - and trying to cope with her death-throes.
The son wants to stop her suffering by giving her more and more medicine, in a rational attempt to ease her passing away, but is confronted with the limits of his trade - to save a life at all costs.
Finally, the wife, the "stranger" in the family, will be the liberator, as she comforts the mother and lets her pass quietly to the other side.
The film could easily be considered as a modern parable defending the right for a dignified death (and it has been presented as such), but with its intricate construction, we can see that it reaches much deeper than that.
By the use of a contrasted light - a chiaroscuro da Vinci, Caravaggio or Georges de La Tour would have been proud of - Chapero-Jackson sets the story in a deep frame, where the shadow is much deeper than light. What's more, the scenes are filmed within a tight frame, in near claustrophobic proximity, a technique very reminiscent of Bergman's Visningar och rop (Cries and Whispers) or Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf).
The effect is already paradoxical, as we are made to believe this is a realistic setting, while at the same time feeling that not all is presented within the faces or close-ups. We see the characters, but we only see what they are presenting in the light. And the presence of the wife, almost always standing in the shadow, is here to remind us that shadows are equally important - as shadows, like light, have a strong ambivalent symbolic power.
Light in Alumbramiento, rather roughly translated in my opinion by Lightborne, is indeed linked with truth - as truth is brought into the light like an infant into life (Alumbramiento actually means birth, as "bringing into light" or "being brought into light"). But what truth? To what purpose?
The characters of the story are confronted by what is commonly called a "moment of truth", the death of a dear one - or of the "dearest one", as it is, after all, the mother herself passing away. Death reveals all the hidden traits and the characters of Alumbramiento do not escape its all-powerful effect. The loving son is trying his best to ease his mother's pain, unwillingly prolonging her agony and suffering. What else can he do, though? He is the loving son, after all. The doctor. The one in charge. The one in the light, by the side of his mother's bed.
But he is also the one in the darkness of his car, sitting next to his wife who is trying to reach out to him, with no success. He is the one who is not answering his sister and is preoccupied only with the milligrams of Morphine he is about to inject into his mother's arm. The light here becomes the very symbol of impotence and illusion, the exact contrary of its traditional symbolic value. As we are told in Genesis, 1.1 to 1.4: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light/And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness." Unfortunately for the son, the light is not dividing any darkness here, quite the contrary, in fact.
His wife, on the other hand, remains in the shadow - or rather, steps out of the shadow. We feel there is tension in the couple, although we will not know why and we can build our own scenarios. A long-time crisis? A rift caused by the mother's agony? The wife is an onlooker at first, albeit a disapproving one. Standing back, she acknowledges her husband's efforts, but finds them ineffective, if not downright cruel (involuntarily cruel, that is, but resulting in great suffering). When she decides to act, she moves out of the shadow and sits on the other side of the bed, to nurse her husband's mother. The first thing she does, after being "unveiled", is to tell the truth: "You are going to die" she tells the mother, in a rather abrupt way.
One could consider here that, as in Genesis, light is parting the darkness, as the mother seems to accept the words with gratefulness. But the wife changes roles, becoming the symbolic mother of the mother, lulling her slowly to her final moments. A face replaces another face, a person becomes the ghost of another and illusion replaces reality. Light is veiled again, but Shadow is not evil - quite the contrary. It is peace, at last. Real peace.
Death is thus, as in the tradition, a passage from one reality to another. Here, the title becomes problematic again, stopping our conventional understanding like a glass wall. Alumbramiento, the passage towards light, the coming to light. But is Death really enlightening?
The film actually ends in darkness, with a slow backwards traveling, allowing us to see the onlooking nurse and the sister, standing in the shadow, her back against the wall like a mysterious figure.
This semi-obscurity is perplexing to the viewer. Where is the promised "light"? After all, all the characters have been "freed": The mother has finally been liberated from her agony, the son from his painful duty, the sister from her mother's suffering, the nurse from her job- but the doctor's wife? What has this death revealed to her, apart from her husband's suffering and vain attempts to relieve his mother? Of course, the couple is reunited at the end - their hands joining over the deceased's chest. Still, the fact remains that she, and she alone, has helped the mother. The light of truth here again is reminiscent of Bergman's, both appeasing and deeply unsettling.
And the husband, precisely, the good son, what has he learned? That Death is the limit of medicine? That his wife understands Death more than he does - his own mother's death, of all things? That he isn't such a good son after all?
And what about the sister, left in the shadow at the end, like a mysterious Renaissance allegory? Why is she outside the room, when the nurse - a stranger - is looking on?
All these questions remain unanswered and the viewer is left only with the central story to focus on, although Chapero-Jackson has made it clear, through his narrative technique (close-ups, chiaroscuro, almost non-existent dialogues, etc.) that there is definitely more to the picture than meets the eye.
More than a "a meditation on an extraordinary aspect of human dignity, the right to an undisturbed and peaceful death" as the Cracow Film Festival presents Alumbramiento, one wonders if it isn't an extraordinary reflection on the possibilities of narration offered by the limits of fiction itself, just as darkness and light are defined by each other. Death is not only a moment of truth, it is mostly a moment of revelation, in which the un-expressed collides with the expressed and where truth, in order to become light, has to become shadow itself. Life and Death are mirror images of each other, as silence is to words - but they are not impenetrable, quite the contrary: they can only exist entwined, although locked in constant conflict. And their fight, precisely, blurrs their identity, as motion sets an object in ambivalence.
An anguishing oxymoron, finally, where the welcomed peace might not be the final peace, as in Baudelaire's poem, Le crépuscule du soir: "Night, which put shadows in their minds, brings light to my own. And, even though it is not rare to see the same cause produce two contrary effects, I am still somewhat intrigued and alarmed by this. "
Alumbramiento is therefore not a film about death, but much more about the darkness contained in the light around death. Coming to light is darkness, remaining darkness, illuminated only superficially. The peaceful death of the mother hence becomes a symbol not of the right to die, but of the right to exist, outside of the conventional patterns of our thoughts. Yes, the wife helps the mother die, finally. She helps her escape. But her only. The living are still here, with their mixture of shadow and light. With their stories, told and untold - mostly untold.
The center of gravity is therefore not where it should be - not in the light illuminating the dying mother's bed, but off-camera, in the dark corners of the apartment with the sister, where silence reigns, waiting to mingle with words as, everyone knows, silence, not light, is truth.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Flowers of Evil. Oxford World Classics, 1998.
The Holy Bible, King's James Version. Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
Bergman, Ingmar. Vargtimmen (The Hour of the Wolf), 1968.
Bergman, Ingmar. Visningar och rop (Cries and Whispers), 1972.
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