The Road to Mother (Doroga k materi) is a historical drama set and filmed in Kazakhstan. Taking place in the 20th century, this is as much a story about the nation of Kazakhstan as it is a story about the characters in it. Following the lives of a modest family, The Road to Mother explores the consequences of Soviet rule over the area that we now know as Kazakhstan. When a traditionally nomadic family is forced to collectivize, misfortune befalls the family where one of the consequences is the separation of a mother, Mariam, and her young son, Ilyas. The saga to reunite the two drives the remainder of the film.
Form Fits Function…The Road to Mother is a film that has a distinct look to it. From the color palette to framing to locations, in watching this film, it’s apparent that the look of this film is integral to what director Akan Satayev and cinematographer Khassan Kydyraliev are trying to convey. Thematically, this film is critical of Communism and the formal elements support this as well. Filmed in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Azerbaijan, this film frequently juxtaposes the sprawling expansive landscapes of Central Asia with the gray decrepit one-room interiors in which the traditionally nomadic Kazakh people were forced to live. Though the images are memorable, the color palette consists of variations of muted beiges and browns next to sickly yellows and grays. Even the sky is seldom blue. Though the film is not pessimistic, it does not shy away from showing the endemic poverty and hardships experienced by the Kazakh people during this time. Indeed, the film is about trying to reunite Illyas and his mother, but along the way, the film weaves in and out of the lives of what Marx & Engel would have called the proletariat class and the picture is not the idyllic utopia that Karl & Fred had envisioned. This is why The Road to Mother is not only about the heartbreaking separation of a mother and her child, but also about Kazakhstan. People think about Russian history and often think about tzars and Rasputin, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, but this is a story for all the nameless people who suffered through the USSR. The film is not without faults, but what it does well it knocks out of the park.
Will the Train Hit Us? Another thing that this film does well, as alluded to earlier, is the presentation of memorable images. Not static images, but moments uniquely suited to the medium of moving pictures. For instance, when Mariam moves into her new village home with her husband and son, the camera presents the event as a series of rapid cuts that frame the family in various ways as if it’s trying to visually express the energy that the feeling of hope, real or imagined, brings with new beginnings. Framing the family between windowsills and door frames to produce a succession of portraits both tight and disjointed, it’s as if the filmmaker is both foreshadowing and tapping into the family’s current frame of mind. Other times, the camera pulls out or cuts to a different angle to reveal more information about a scene—all of which makes for a more dynamic viewing experience.
Actors Should React, But Characters Should Act… Overall, The Road to Mother is has a lot to offer: There’s history, pathos, and excellent cinematography; and yet, the characters are never very well developed. All the characters in this film are largely one-dimensional. Mariam is in search of her son. Ilyas is trying to make his way back to his mother. Oumit, Ilyas’s childhood sweetheart, is holding out until he returns. Perhaps it has to do with the sheer scope of the film—as it tries to tackle a lot—but the film never digs beyond the surface of its central characters. What are these characters like when they’re alone? Who are they beyond a mother, a son, and a caregiver? How do their illusions and disillusions shape them as people? We are seldom privy to any of this. Misfortunes seem to simply happen to all these characters as they are forced to deal and cope. Perhaps this is indicative of how the Kazakh people see this period of time; or, perhaps this is how the filmmaker interpreted this period of time—that misfortunes befell the Kazakhs and they just had to deal with it; and it’s probably historically true; yet, as far as character motivation, it lacks the grab that a story needs to keep an audience truly invested. There are goodies and baddies and as a viewer, it’s apparent where our allegiances should lie; and yet, it’s difficult to truly be invested when the baddies are so unidirectionally bad and the goodies are so unequivocally good. It’s reductive. It’s a blemish that pokes through the canvas on which an ostensibly fine painting has been varnished. In short, The Road to Mother does tug at heartstrings. It is well made and endeavors to tell the stories of the nameless proletariat. Yet, despite its qualities, it does lack a certain je ne sais quoi that makes a film memorable.
A stately historical saga for the nameless sufferers of forced collectivization.