107 Mothers


Reviewed by: Nikola Jovic

107 Mothers
"Despite all of its shortcomings, 107 Mothers nonetheless, makes for quite a completing piece of filmmaking."

The words of The Beatles song: “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you meant to be, all you need is love” leave a bittersweet taste once you get a flavour of where love can lead you to in this half-documentary/half-fiction prison drama. But don’t get your hopes up, because the touch of love, director Péter Kerekes delivers in this picture, is a cold one.

Leysa (Maryna Klimova) is an exhausted and detached young woman, sentenced to serve out a seven-year sentence in Odessa women's prison for murdering her husband out of jealousy. Her troubles start when she has to deliver her baby son, later to be named Kolya (Vyacheslav Vygovskyi), while in prison, imposing on her a difficult choice. Either give your child up for adoption to a foster home (probably never to see them again), or have a member of your family adopt them in an effort to keep your child in the family. Leysa's relations with her mother and sister, who live in crowded and struggling working-class families, are flimsy at best, but even that is better than turning to her grieving mother-in-law. Or is it?

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All of this sounds like we’re dealing with a single point-of-view fight for perseverance type of drama, but this movie deals with so much more in a tame and detached manner. Since it’s set up as a half-documentary/half-fiction, its structure leads us to expect the confessions of multiple women as they speak to an officer, Iryna (Iryna Kiryazeva), while we’re also following Iryna’s own personal development and struggles. Maybe all of this sounds way more complicated than it should, which only speaks to the uniqueness of the approach, but exactly that which sets it apart as unique, also creates some of its biggest shortcomings.

Precisely because of the shifts in focus, we don’t have a single lens through which we should look at the picture. At first, Leysa's story lends itself as a centerpiece of the film since her pregnancy kind of serves as an inciting incident for later events, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Iryna is the connective tissue for all the small stories that are featured. Not having a single protagonist isn’t a problem in and of itself, but by this detached approach means we, as an audience, don’t have a surrogate through which we can empathise with other characters and events. We’re merely just observing documented events. Like a documentary? Exactly, which can be a good thing, making you retreat into yourself to think about what you’re experiencing. But this film also demands that we don't just lurk but also empathise, and you can’t really have it both ways.

Because of that, while we’re supposed to feel for Iryna, her actions when she’s reading the letters of all the prisoners, for example, feel almost as if she’s feeding off of all the love expressed in them in order to fill in the lack of love in her personal life. Leysa can, in one scene, seem like a loving mother, but in a totally different scene deliberately spill her breast milk (meaning her son won’t get proper nourishment). These contradictions are compelling and interesting, and markings of great characters, but again, instead of empathising in order to understand, we remain on the outside.

The reason why I’m dwelling on this point is that despite all of its shortcomings, 107 Mothers nonetheless, makes for quite a completing piece of filmmaking. In the progressive discourse, when we talk about marginal voices, we always talk about them from the point of view of the victim, and one can easily imagine a different film that would highlight how the oppressive systems in place have contributed to the tragedies of its subjects. But when you ask these women how they got there, they would tell you it’s because of love, or an act of jealousy… They’re given human decency in picking a choice that is, some might say, no choice at all. In fact, not only are they not victims of some men, but men are nowhere to be found in this picture. The first male voice we hear in the film is a voiceover reading of a love letter, that is so filled with emotion that it sounds like a total reversal of what we’re usually used to (women writing emotionally powerful letters to men in prison).

We feel like all of them, regardless of whether they’re in prison for murder, or if they’re running the prison, have a deep understanding and empathy for each other, represented in all kinds of blue motifs that dominate the frame, towering over them (meaning, they’re together in this with the same problems and same fate). And despite the hellish and depressing atmosphere in the beginning, through this understanding, the film manages to find some humour and heart in it. Too bad that this empathy doesn’t spill over to the other side of the silver screen.

Reviewed on: 17 Nov 2021
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Docufiction considering the lives of mothers in Odessa women's prison.

Director: Péter Kerekes

Writer: Péter Kerekes, Ivan Ostrochovský, Ivan Ostrochovský

Starring: Maryna Klimova, Iryna Kiryazeva, Lyubov Vasylyna, Maryna Klimova, Iryna Kiryazeva, Lyubov Vasylyna

Year: 2021

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: Slovakia, Czech Republic, Ukraine

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