Year: 2016
Director(s): Celia Rowlson-Hall
Writer(s): Celia Rowlson-Hall
Region of Origin: US

Rating: Unrated
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Color, 80 mins

Synopsis: A woman who must venture across the scorched landscape of the American Southwest to fulfill her destiny. (Source)

At this point, we’ve been conditioned to consume films in a certain way – the medium simply adheres to a set of staid rules that are rarely broken or challenged. Though there’s nothing wrong with convention, Ma, by director Celia Rowlson-Hall is a refreshing wrench in the status-quo – it’s an astounding achievement that forces us to look beyond our comfort zone, and actually immerse ourselves in what’s happening on screen. Transforming the biblical story of Mother Mary’s pilgrimage into a modern feminist fairy tale, the film is a timeless story about finding oneself, all while subverting the ideas of purity and redemption in a barren world. Told without a single line of dialogue, Rowlson-Hall and choreographer Ian Bloom explore primal human interactions within a dystopian landscape full of beauty and hardship. Sure, this is a film that asks more from the viewer, but also one that gives back exponentially.

When we first see the film’s protagonist (Celia Rowlson-Hall), she’s wandering through a dry desert, a towel over her head, and wearing a faded oversized t-shirt with pink cowboy boots. She’s but a speck amidst her vast surroundings, and we have no idea where she’s come from or what she’s up to. Coming upon a road, she crosses paths with a young man (Andrew Pastides) who offers her a ride. Over the course of the next few days, the two take shelter at a roadside motel and find themselves drawn to one another. Together, they enact a microcosm of contemporary society, exploring gender roles, love, passion and hope, even amidst some dark turns and seemingly hopeless situations. There’s a violent act involved, but also a virgin birth, forcing our silent heroine to find the strength to persevere.

Without words, Rowlson-Hall’s film is one that’s experiential, allowing the viewer and her characters to think and feel through emotion and deed. Because of this, the film displays a rare type of honesty, one that views life and its complexity through abstract song and primal dance. At any given moment, what we see unfold is both literal and figurative, with the line between the two often blurred in clever ways. Through it all, Rowlson-Hall delivers a fascinating take on spirituality, turning the mundane into magic and transcending religious iconography to explore purpose and identity amidst a modern backdrop. You’ve no doubt learned of Mother Mary’s immaculate conception before, but seeing it put together in a way that’s both analytical and emotional really brings the story to life. The modern implications are staggering, especially in terms of women’s consent, holding more weight now than ever.

Even with the film’s arresting imagery, it’s Rowlson-Hall’s silent performance that is the true anchor. From the moment we see her, we feel both a burden and excitement for the possibilities surrounding her. Rowlson-Hall conveys much more with her body language or stray glance than anyone could ever say with words, contorting her body or using subtle nuance to convey the entire depth of human emotion. Still, the heightened reality of her character never feels less than genuine, as she adapts to her surroundings and searches for connection in ways that are mesmerizing. As Daniel, Andrew Pastides is a fascinating contrast to Ma, struggling with temptation and innocence through a subversion of expectation. Together, the pair boast palpable tension, with an electric buzz that emanates around them.

Hands down, Ma is a breathtaking blend of feeling and intellect, one that pushes the medium forward and shows off its limitless possibilities. At its core, the Rowlson-Hall has blended performance art with visual narrative, and the results speak for themselves. This is the type of film that needs to be sought out, with heartfelt ideas that bewilder and stir. I’m definitely going to see this one more than once.