Movie Review: “Ma” might just be the year’s most unclassifiable movie, and it’s not even March yet.
I am sitting here, struggling to write a review of Celia Rowlson-Hall’s mesmeric new film “Ma,” while at the same time attempting to make sense of what I’ve seen. Conjecture and theorizing do no justice to Ms. Rowlson Hall’s transfixing movie, which resists summarization, categorization and just about every form of being labeled for mass consumption at nearly every turn during its brief 80-minute runtime. It is a true, real-deal underground art film that, in spite of its flaws, stands out in an independent film scene that only grows more timid and beholden to commercial filmmaking norms with each passing year.
There will be those who herald “Ma” as a new age masterpiece, those who deride it as pretentious film student dribble, and those who simply can’t wrap their heads around what the movie is trying to say. I’m not quite sure I understood the point of the journey that the filmmakers of “Ma” took me on, though the movie’s theological symbolism is certainly heavy-handed enough. To be fair, I’m not sure the filmmakers know either. As “Ma” slowly unfolds, it reveals a kind of primal, exploratory and ultimately hypnotic energy: it feels as though Rowlson-Hall and her team are discovering the contours and nuances of their story in tandem with the audience. The resulting film plays more like music than cinema. It exists entirely on its own terms, resistant to theory, analysis or armchair cinephiliac philosophy. Like all truly worthwhile works of art, there is no one definitive assessment that applies to “Ma” that will make it more digestible for those viewers who simply demand that a film they choose to watch should have a quote-unquote point (i.e. that every film should bear a tidy ABC structure, along with a semblance of resolution). Inhabiting its own strange plateau, “Ma” simply exists, and I suspect the film will manifest itself as different things for different viewers.
The tone of “Ma” is strikingly original. Of course, attentive viewers who’ve done their homework will be able to see scraps of Wim Wenders, Luis Bunuel, the silent masterworks of Buster Keaton, Rick Alverson’s recent “Entertainment” and classic dance cinema in the mélange that Rowlson-Hall has concocted here. As many critics have noted, the film exists almost entirely without dialogue, with only the occasional piece of score, some diegetic sound and a few animal grunts and lustful sighs here and there to break the silence.
In depriving her film of casual conversation and any form of exposition that might help the viewer to ascertain just what the hell is going on, Rowlson-Hall — who also choreographed the movie’s stunning dance sequences, and also stars as the wordless, virginal drifter of the title — is exposing just how hollow words can be when they’re used lazily to move a story forward. To be honest, I’m not even sure “Ma” really qualifies as a story as much as it does a kind of long-form experiment. It’s a half-dreamt allegory, a moving still painting, a silent meditation on divinity that prompts waves of wonder, amusement, horror and reverence. You might not know what to make of “Ma” when you walk out of the theatre or turn off your Apple T.V., but I very much doubt you’ll see another film like it all year.
Describing the plot in any kind of a traditional sense is impossible. There is a woman, a mute desert Madonna, first seen wandering the barren wastelands of the American West. Later, with all the emoting of a mannequin in a department store, Ma throws herself on the hood of a dusty Oldesmobile driven by a man (Andrew Pastides) with a face like a silent movie actor. They arrive at a motel, where sinister vibrations seem afoot. There is the suggestion of a gang rape, though it is never anything more than a suggestion. There are confounding passages where our character’s dance in and out of each other’s physical orbit while grunting like gorillas, and also an unexpectedly opulent and Caligulan climactic passage that brings to mind the feverish midnight movie majesty of Alejandro Jodorowsky.
“Ma” almost reminded me of the music of controversial no-wave/noise band Swans, whose album “The Seer” I have listened to countless times since first hearing it in 2011. To someone who ingests a steady diet of pop music (i.e. mainstream movies), Swans might not even sound like music. Their songs are built off repetitions that grind themselves into a kind of monolithic, swaggering majesty, where lyrics about spiritual rebirth mingle freely with whispered threats and apocalyptic ravings. “Ma” exposes a similarly fascinating and rupturous discord at the heart of its medium. In a way, the film is a work of classic minimalism: Rowlson Hall is depriving her audience of the things many of them go to the movies for (plot, dialogue, backstory, action, etc.) and reducing her work to the bare essentials whilst cranking up a feverish surreality that may make sense only to her. “Ma” is an exercise in stripping away the parts to expose a film’s true core, though I imagine some will find it exhilarating for the same reason that others may find it alienating.
The aesthetics of the movie are undoubtedly impressive. The movie’s crackling, sun-kissed cinematography lingers over American roadside iconography — fleabag motels, classic American cars, the romance of the desert — in effect turning its expansive world into something akin to Jerusalem in the time of the Old Testament. The movie’s mix of its adroit sound design with Brian McComber’s bloodcurdling score is also commendable, evoking the avant-garde work of “Jackie” and “Under the Skin” composer Mica Levi. In an era where movies and television have inundated us with plot to a degree that is almost burdensome, “Ma” is a welcome feast for the senses. It can be enjoyed as a psychedelic parable, a riff on the paradoxes of theology or just as a purely sensual head trip. Take your pick.
I want to ask you reader: why do you go to the movies? There’s no right or wrong answer to this question, obviously. Some of us go to escape from the drudgery or inanity of our lives. Others to go to see their fantasies, desires or fears projected onto a big screen, and acted out by handsome and charismatic movie stars. Some of us go because we want to be taken out of our comfort zone and shown something we’re not used to. “Ma” is a difficult film to assess but it’s also undeniably beautiful and original, and in a film landscape where myself and others feel as though we’re just seeing endless variations on the same pre-existing formulas, “Ma” is something genuinely new. For better or worse, the film will take you out of your own head for a little under an hour and a half and take you to a dark and entrancing netherworld where most other movies wouldn’t dare to venture. Take the trip. Grade: B+.