AFI FEST Review: Celia Rowlson-Hall’s ‘Ma’ Gets Too Surreal For its Own Good

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Do you find the films of David Lynch to be too commercial? Do you find the films of Luis Buñuel to be too cliched? Do you find that the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky are just a little too obvious? Well, if so, then Ma is for you. Ma marks the feature length directorial debut of Celia Rowlson-Hall, who also serves as writer, choreographer, and star of the film. It’s 80 solid minutes of near silent surrealism, rife with religious iconography. The shame of it is that it’s not a particularly engaging film to watch.

Aside from a few guttural sounds and a child singing “Amazing Grace,” there’s not a single word of dialogue in the film. It opens with Ma (Rowlson-Hall), or at least that’s what the credits refer to her as, walking through the southwestern desert, donning a pair of red cowboy boots and a hotel towel draped upon her head. Alongside a desert highway, Ma climbs upon the hood of a car owned by Daniel (Andrew Pastides), again his name only conveyed in closing credits. Affixed upon the hood of the car, Ma remains there as Daniel drives them to a hotel. The two then build an awkward and unspoken relationship, stopping at various hotels and surrealist dreams before Ma finishes her pilgrimage in Las Vegas where she gives birth, thus fulfilling the film’s religious aspects with Ma working as a kind of Virgin Mary.

Ma doesn’t work because it’s almost unwieldy in its surrealism. The religious iconography is there in the film’s earliest frames, a burning bush alongside the road where Daniel picks up Ma. But without even a word or two here and there between these two people to flesh out some semblance of human relationship, it turns the whole film into a series of “huh” moments. (There’s no question mark in “huh” because it’s more of a statement than a question of bewilderment.) It’s not that Ma needs a story with a beginning, middle, and end as much as it needs something to clue in the audience to something that’s going on. In particular, there’s a scene of a gang rape that’s later repeated and can’t figure out its meaning in relation to the parallels with the Virgin Mary, unless, of course, there’s that biblical gang rape story with Mary I forgot about.

I can respect the audacity of Celia Rowlson-Hall in crafting Ma, though I can’t really respect the finished product. Rowlson-Hall and cinematographer Ian Bloom do get some wonderful shots in the film, yet that aggressive surrealism doesn’t allow the audience to soak in the beauty in the haze of abstract imagery. It’s a bold movie in crafting this film as a mostly silent exercise in the surreal, though bold moves don’t always pay off. They certainly didn’t with Ma.

 

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