Venice Review: ‘Mama, I’m Home’

“Bodies are heavier after death, my pop told me.” So says a child at the beginning of Mama I’m Home, setting the scene for Vladimir Bitokov’s compelling second feature which premiered in the Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival.

This is Kabardino-Balkaria, a world where some children grow up to have a choice between unemployment, and fighting for a Russian private military contractor. Tonya (Kseniya Rappoport) has persuaded her son to take the latter option, but bitterly regrets it when she is told that he has been killed in action. Refusing to believe it, she storms into everywhere from army offices to police stations, demanding the truth. When the authorities realize that she won’t give up, a young man arrives at her home, claiming to be her long lost son, alive and well. But he’s a stranger to Tonya, and the conspiracy unfolds as she continues to battle for answers.

It’s a fascinating premise; on the one hand an identity thriller that recalls everything from Sommersby to Titane; on the other, a grim portrait of life and corruption in the region. There’s a Kafkaesque feel to the way that Tonya is fobbed off with misinformation and brazen lies; officials and even the media playing their part in a pageant, all aware that they are presenting a fiction.

Bitokov brings out the dark humor in this scenario, while Rappoport is a winning protagonist, campaigning for the truth with a fearless fervor. This is a no-nonsense woman who shoots from the hip, but she’s being silenced — in some cases literally — by a regime that wants to make her a prisoner in her own home. She’s a born activist, giving the film an emotional clout as well as an inventive streak: the fact that she’s also a bus driver is used to great effect.

Meanwhile, Yuri Bolisov puts in another magnetic performance after his turn in Venice title Captain Volkonogov Escaped. Part aggressor, part son figure, he’s an enigmatic presence whose shifts reflect the scary, unpredictable world he comes from. There’s also a hint of sexual tension between his character and Tonya, which adds an uncomfortable sense of intrigue, enhanced by intimate cinematography from Ksenia Sereda.

Their story intertwines with that of officials who are intent on the renovation of a dilapidated historic building. Local fortunes rest on state funding, and they’re working themselves into a fervor preparing for an inspection. These scenes strike a more accentuated comedic tone. Mama, I’m Home has plenty to say about absurdities of everything from local politics to war — and the point of view of a desperate, determined mother gives it a fresh edge. It’s another powerful story from the Deep Rivers director.

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