SXSW Review: Madre (Chile, 2016) isn’t the thriller you expect

Set in Chile, Madre follows wife and mother Diana (Daniela Ramirez). Pregnant with her second child and caring for her disabled son, Martin (Matias Bassi), Diana struggles daily with running the household; her husband Tomas (Cristobal Tapia Montt) is often away on business in Asia. Just as we’re about to see how much more she can withstand on the ole proverbial Struggle Street, Diana fortuitously meets Luz (Aida Jabolin), an elderly Filipino woman who calms Martin down faster and with better results than Diana ever could. Diana hires her as a nanny/housekeeper, thinking she can finally regain some sanity in her life. But the more time Luz spends with Martin, the more Diana can’t shake off the feeling that something is off with her household, and soon she’s suspicious of Luz.

This thriller is directed by Aaron Burns, who honed his skills in horror/thriller storytelling through his frequent collaboration with famed horror director Eli Roth (Hostel, Hostel II, Cabin Fever), who sets the film in Chile, where he now lives and works. The premise of the film – unlikely household saviour actually turns into sinister demon woman – holds great promise and intrigue, but, like the film, there’s some hidden factors that some might not be able to ignore.

The biggest problem with this film is that although it’s presented as a cautionary tale about the people we let into our homes (and around our kids etc.), it’s hard to get past the underlying xenophobia and class discrimination that moves this story along.

From an Australian point of view, the idea of a live-in housekeeper is hard to fathom, so the idea of one, even in film, may already be odd to some people. This already difficult cultural aspect isn’t helped by the fact that the housekeeper, Luz, is presented as the outsider to be fearful of. Much of the film’s fear is based on Diana’s mistrust (and intrigue, in the beginning) in Luz and where she comes from. That she’s not like her in social status, ethnicity, nationality.

In Get Out, for example, writer/director Jordan Peele uses the horror genre to highlight racism and discrimination in American society. In Madre, this is reversed, the xenophobia is the vehicle for the horror. There’s no reason for it other than Diana needs to be scared of someone, and in this case, it’s her Filipino housekeeper, Luz. The elderly woman is presented as the “other”, never a part of the society Luz and her philandering husband inhabit.

In one scene, Diana has a frank conversation with Luz’s son, David (played by Nicolás Durán). Diana remarks on Luz’s techniques of only speaking to Martin in Filipino; it’s not normal, Diana protests. “Normal people speak Filipino too” David tells her solemnly. But the implication is already there – Diana’s mind is made up, and the audience is set up to believe that Luz, speaking a language other than that of her employer, is up to no good. For argument’s sake, Filipinos speak Tagalog, a term that is not mentioned in the film, further highlighting how xenophobia drives the tension against Luz in this movie along. Had Luz been more than just the obvious villain, the script would have included this piece of information.

It’s also very interesting that the horror in this film comes from the housekeeper, and not from, say, an educator, a social worker etc., equally possible to having access to Martin and his family. This fear of someone in a supposed lower class than the film’s protagonists cements the idea of higher classes being better and less of a threat. It’s almost a half-hearted attempt at creating tension between Diana and Luz, and one that doesn’t always feel real. To the filmmaker’s credit, though, they do touch on this, but only just. David, again the voice of reason in this one critical scene, tells Diana that she is privileged. “You are a collector, you only want perfect things like trophies … you aren’t a real mother …”. Diana bristles at this remark, but some may find this a refreshing burst of honesty.

In another misstep, the film’s portrayal of Martin’s disability may also be seen as an unconcerned attempt at using this character as a challenge for Diana. We’re told Martin is autistic, but that’s about as sensitive to the issue the film ever gets to this. Child actor Matias Bassi does deliver a good performance as Martin, however if he’d been given more direction rather than just a cookie cutter portrayal of this, it may have been a different story altogether.

However, there are some interesting aspects to the film. The whole idea of “outsider as potential threat” practically invades our newsfeeds, our political arguments. This is 2017. Everyone is a threat. It’s interesting, whether Aaron Burns did this intentionally or not, that he chose to use this theme as a main point in Madre. It certainly drives the fear factor home, and it does make you check your thought processes.

The way Burns shows us Diana’s slowly fading trust in Luz goes straight to the heart to a good thriller. Because of actor Daniela Ramirez’s portrayal of Diana as a sympathetic character, the audience is already on her side, which makes Diana’s descent into supposed madness even all the more eerie. Diana’s physical ailments, like all good horror films, only add to the suspense.

It’s also interesting to note that Burns does not shy away from just how much Diana is struggling as a parent, particularly at the start of the film. Diana as the stay-at-home mother is really giving it her all here, particularly with a husband who is never home. Burns had to do this to prove that Diana needed Luz, but Diana really was at her wit’s end before Luz came around. The scene in the grocery store will go straight to the heart of any parent who’s had to take a child out in public and isn’t in control of the situation. Parenting is hard, and for Diana, it’s more than hard. It’s almost impossible.

Having said that, though, Madre just never really feels like a jump-out-of-your-skull horror/thriller film. The antagonist was one-dimensional, and it just felt like Burns made Luz the film’s “bad guy” simply by making her the immigrant housekeeper who spoke another language. It never felt that Aida Jabolin‘s Luz was really that much of a threat. She was low-key a little weird, but her “weirdness” was in her otherness, not in her demeanour. By the time we get to the heightened finale, we’ve seen it a mile away.  It’s not a thrill anymore.

It didn’t feel like Burns intended to make a social commentary film about an “us vs. them” power struggle, using Luz and Diana as the main poles of power in the house, and that’s where this film falters. Using superficial points of difference between the characters makes what could have been a truly spine-tingling simply an interesting film, and in 2017, when audiences are finally taking note of tired character profiles, this could have been lifted out of its mould.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Madre screened at SXSW last month. It will be released on Netflix later in the year.