Nuestras Madres (Our Mothers)

B+ political mystery
Written and directed by César Díaz

César Díaz set out to make a documentary about Guatemala’s genocide, but he changed his mind and made a fictional, narrative film instead. What he lost in that decision was information; he couldn’t just have a narrator explaining what had happened. (Or at least it would have been a very bad idea.) What he got, by focusing on one fictitious character, was a greater emotional charge.

Ernesto (Armando Espitia) is a young, handsome, and very committed government investigator trying to identify the bones of the many buried in mass graves. The military and guerilla fighters fought each other for decades. Not surprisingly, the indigenous people in their farming villages took the worst of it. The military considered the native Mayans to be subhuman. The guerillas, theoretically helping the villagers, made things worse.

Díaz set Nuestras Madres in 2018. The slaughters stopped almost 20 years earlier, and the government is finally trying to do something about it.

The story really gets going when an old, native woman comes into Ernesto’s office. She wants to find her husband’s body. But it’s complicated. The likely spot for the mass grave is on private land, and the owner doesn’t want it to be dug up. Her husband has no living relatives, and the native woman never conceived children, so there’s no way to match his DNA. It’s in the woman’s home that Ernesto begins to realize that not all the atrocities were caused by the military.

Soon, this investigation becomes personal for Ernesto. While doing his research, he finds a thread to his own missing father – a guerilla who disappeared before Ernesto could get to know him. Ernesto comes home to his mother’s home; a warm, comfortable refuge filled with friendly leftists (they sing The International at a party). His mother has no desire to look back at the horrors of her past, and Ernesto sets out for a new and much more personal case.

Nuestras Madres is a very short, stripped-down feature; only 78 minutes long. We do learn that Ernesto has a friend at work – not as driven as Ernesto but still working to find the dead. In one scene Ernesto has sex with a woman in a car, but we never know anything about their relationship (if they have one). There’s no background music except in the credits.

The film contains one movie cliché: Ernesto’s boss is gruff, cynical, and often tells him that he’s getting too involved with the case. I guess a serious film can be allowed one stereotype.

Nuestras Madres starts streaming Friday. That’s also the day you can buy a “ticket” at the Lark website. I don’t know what other Bay Area theaters will be selling virtual tickets.