Have you ever heard the legend of the Three Mothers?
Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) first wrote about these women in "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow" (read it here), a prose poem included in his 1845 book Suspiria de Profundis. De Quincey was an enigmatic English essayist and druggie who also wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822 -- not to be confused with Confessions of A Teenage Drama Queen) and two papers On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827, 1837).
In "Levana," the narrator recounts how, when he was a student at Oxford, the Roman goddess of newborns and child rearing came to him at night and introduced him to her three girlfriends. He calls them "Our Ladies of Sorrow." The Sorrows are a trio of supernatural beings much like the Graces, the Fates, or the Furies, and they are responsible for all human misery. Mater Lachrymarum (the Mother of Tears) is responsible for mourning, Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs) oversees hopelessness and broken dreams, and Mater Tenebrarum (the Mother of Darkness) presides over mental illness -- depression and madness.
The Films of Dario Argento
Italian filmmaker, Dario Argento (b.1940), was inspired by De Quincey's work to create a trilogy of films based on the Three Mothers. Argento is best known for directing horror movies and gialli (the Italian word for works in the noir/detective/crime/slasher genre) in the '70s and '80s. His works are characterized by artistic and stylized depictions of murder, hallucinogenic use of color and other dream-like elements. Often the plot doesn't make logical sense, but things resonate in the viewer's subconscious and are accepted within the internal logic of the film much like in a dream.A good example is Profondo Rosso (Deep Red 1975). The investigators are trying to track down the slasher when a witness tells them he heard a children's song playing when the killer was in his house. This reminds one of the investigators of a folktale/urban legend he once read about an abandoned villa outside of Rome where people heard the sounds of children playing. The connection between the slasher and the haunted house seems pretty tenuous, yet the other investigators are all like "great idea, let's check it out..," and the film continues from there. There is another scene where a victim uses his last breath to trace the killer's name on the steamed tiles of the bathroom wall, yet the audience can never make out what the letters say. This reminded me of how you can't really read things in a dream (I think the part of your brain that handles reading is not active when you're dreaming).
Argento also uses rock music in some of his films to interesting effect. Some of his movies were originally filmed with the international cast of actors all speaking in different languages, as it was planned to later dub the film into several languages (Italian, English...). If you've never seen any of Argento's work I would recommend Opera (1987) or Suspiria, and if you're already a fan I suggest you check out Kinoeye's series of articles analyzing Argento's cinema.
The Three Mother's Trilogy
Dario Argento reimagined the Three Mothers as a trio of immortal witches who use their powers to malevolently influence world events.
The first film in the trilogy is Suspiria (1977), in which a young American woman enrolls in a dance academy outside Freiburg, Germany which turns out to be run by a coven of witches. Helena Markos, the mysterious headmistress who is rarely seen but whose snoring echoes through the academy's halls at night, is none other than the Mother of Sighs although she is not identified as such in the movie. The actress who plays Markos in the film's climactic final scene is uncredited, but according to Jessica Harper, who played the protagonist, she was a 90-year-old ex-whore whom Argento found on the streets of Rome. In one scene, an academic tells the American girl about the witches, "their goal is to gain great personal wealth," yet in the movie we really don't see them do much more than try to run a girl's dance school while killing off the nosey people who come too close to unmasking them. Suspiria is regarded as one of Argento's best and scariest films.
The second film in the trilogy is Inferno (1980) in which we encounter the Mother of Darkness in her home in New York. Inferno also lays out the mythos of Argento's Three Mothers: we are told that, in the 19th century, the Mothers commissioned an architect named Varelli to build them three stately homes in Freiburg, New York City, and Rome from which they secretly rule the world. In an old book written by Varelli, one of the character's reads that you can identify the mothers' homes by three signs (1) a bittersweet smell of decay pervades the air around their houses, (2) hidden in the cellar one can find the portrait and the name of the mother who lives in the house, and (3) a third key is found "under the soles of your shoes" (as befits the film's oneiric tone, the characters are of course standing in the right place when they remember this key). Again, although we are told the witches secretly rule the world, Mater Tenebrarum really only seems to threaten the characters in the film who've visited her house or the general vicinity. Inferno also gives us a glimpse of Mater Lachrymarum in the guise of a beautiful young women with a black cat whom the protagonist sees during a music lecture in Rome.
The Third Mother is Nigh!
Plans for a third movie have been in the works since the completion of Inferno some 27 years ago, and the screenplay has gone through various unfinished incarnations. At least since 2004, I had heard rumors that the third movie in the trilogy was coming, but when I started to research this blog post I was surprised to find out that the film is finally here.
La Terza Madre (which the international distributor has decided to call "Mother of Tears," I guess because it sounds less stupid and slightly more frightening than "The Third Mother" -- in my head the tagline is "the baddest mother of them all!") was shown at the Toronto film festival in September and the Rome film festival last month, and it was released in Italy on Halloween (Oct. 31, 2007). The North American theatrical release is supposed to occur sometime next year.
From what I've heard, this is Argento's most graphic film. Apparently some scenes have been removed from the theatrical cut due to ratings concerns, but they will be available on the DVD (talk about a reason to wait to watch it on DVD!). Some people say this is the director's best film since 1987's Opera (until now his recent movies have been relatively lame), and that this is more gritty and realistic than his previous stylized, oneiric films. I also read somewhere that the film's aesthete is still kind of '80s thus suggesting that Argento's cinema is fatally intertwined with a past time period.
The actress from Inferno does not reprise the role of Mater Lachrymarum (seeing as how over 20 years have passed and she has five kids). Instead hot Israeli actress, Moran Atias, takes up the titular role. The film also stars Dario's sexy daughter, Asia Argento, and his baby mama, Daria Nicolodi.
Here is the trailer for Mother of Tears
For enquiring minds that don't speak Italian the captions read "Three sisters... the Mother of Sighs... the Mother of Darkness... and now even the cruelest [which is bullshit. Everybody knows Mater Tenebrarum is the cruelest of the three] has returned... to feed on your tears... after 'Suspiria'... and 'Inferno'... the Trilogy ends... The Third Mother... a film by Dario Argento."
Orestes pursued by the Furies (1862) painted by Bougereau can be seen at the Chrylser Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo of Freiburg's Haus zum Walfisch taken by Frank McGady is in the public domain. Screenshot from Inferno (c) Produzioni Intersound and poster/trailer for Mother of Tears (c) Medusa Film.