Russian director Alexander Sokurov's Mother and Son belongs to and extends the great tradition of the meditative art film as exemplified by the works of Bresson, Antonioni and Tarkovsky -- moviemakers with an abiding belief that the exploration of visual qualities intrinsic to the medium yields more elusive (if not profound) meanings than could such "borrowed" aspects of cinema as plot and dialogue. For these directors, a movie is not an illustrated book. It's something more.
Mother and Son's story is whisper-thin. A young man is attending his dying mother. They live in a hovel somewhere in the Russian countryside, dwarfed figures in the abundant landscape and under the menacingly impressionistic sky. She lies in bed and they talk, sharing vague memories between her cries of agony and the son's unconvincing but well-meant assurances. She wants to go outside, so the son carries her around for a while; they settle down and talk a little more, then the son carries her home. And then she dies.
Shooting through painted glass and using mirrors, Sokurov painstakingly creates expressively distorted images; he has said he's less interested in filming nature than in re-creating it. His Russian countryside can be both distressingly flat and oddly curved, reaching out with startling clarity and then blurring enigmatically. His human figures also stretch out unnaturally, at times becoming grotesquely elongated. Sokurov wants us to re-see things, to sense the extraordinary quality of the everyday. That the film is ravishingly beautiful is, perhaps, incidental.
There's no getting around the fact that the movie is a challenge; Sokurov's long takes can make its 73 minutes feel as protracted as Titanic; and his unselfconscious solemnity may be an affront to many irony-drenched filmgoers. But he's serious and requires only that he be approached in kind. The reward is a unique visual experience with, given its inevitability, a finale of unexpected emotional intensity.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.