MAMACRUZ - Patricia Ortega
Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Morris Yang Featured Film

MAMACRUZ — Patricia Ortega [Sundance ’23 Review]

January 27, 2023

At its heart, Patricia Ortega’s MAMACRUZ radiates a tender and thoughtful warmth for its sympathetic main character, a woman whose womanhood has, after decades of religious devotion and institutionalization, retaken center stage in her life. The titular Cruz (Kiti Mánver) — a seventy-something woman, wife, and mother — has made small-town routine her domicile. She traverses quaint, sun-baked streets on her way to and from church, where she helps out by sewing garments for its Virgin Mary statue; she cooks and cleans with unspoken familiarity for her frizzled-hair husband and cherubic granddaughter; and she video-calls her daughter, an aspiring dancer currently based in Vienna, from time to time. More tellingly, however, she’s established a gentle rhythm for her twilight years, one whose lack of geographical specificity (it’s Spain, but it’s also any suburban community therein) encases a larger universal truth about women her age: they’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, so formative to their physical and psychological growth decades prior.

Ortega’s follow-up to 2018’s Being Impossible isn’t the terribly tragic tale that is this genre’s wont to host. Films like Gaspar Noé’s Vortex or Arturo Ripstein’s Devil Between the Legs show the worst side of old age’s ravages, and undermine the oft-held belief in a thematic indie shorthand of optimistic/acclaimed versus miserabilist/underwhelming. (Swap the terms for Cannes.) MAMACRUZ’s radiant tonal palette and unassuming performances suggest hope amidst normalcy, familiarity within stifled desire, and its crux revolves around how Cruz rediscovers her body and her passion against society’s will. When she first stumbles upon one of those ubiquitous porn ads while looking at Wikipedia — has malware really gotten so bad in Spain? — her immediate reaction is refusal and rejection; “turn it off,” she desperately flounders in the wee hours of the dawn, before frantically gesturing an apology to the Virgin propped on a drawer in her living room. It’s only after Cruz is slightly goaded by circumstance (namely, her husband giving her the inexplicable silent and sexless treatment), and taking into account the arguably teleological foundations of our carnal drives, that Cruz embraces a breathlessness and a heart-quickening sense of desire that’s been long dormant within her. Attending a women’s sex therapy group in a clandestine capacity and discovering the now-voguish potentials of anal sex and Ben Wa balls, she opens up to a personal dimension hitherto denied her and compensated for, instead, by Mass and motherhood.

Ortega’s scenario, on the whole, traffics in compassion and nuance, eschewing the risqué and risible sensationalism frequently realized by hardcore pornography and patriarchal stereotyping, respectively. That is, however, not to recuse MAMACRUZ from blanket criticism, which many a critic today is guilty of in their pursuit of ideological synonymy. All its sensitivities aside, Ortega’s film remains shuttered in by thematic exiguity and clumsiness. Its ideas would be better off expounded in the context of a short (given how Ortega quickly resorts to surrealism as a means of channeling psychological interiority), and its seeming provocations — by way of juxtaposing Cruz’s religious faith with her erotic stirrings — scan irksome, not because of their tastelessness but due to the film’s thematic preoccupations explicitly rendered as thesis statement. To critique MAMACRUZ, then, is to acknowledge its selective nuances and subtleties while recognizing the limits of character studies whose predetermined scope restricts, more or less, their outsized ambitions.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 4.