In Search of the Parent(s)
The dread of parental abandonment delivers a painful message to a child. How painful would be to move along with a knife stuck into our body? The parental abandonment and the shame accompanying it are similar to that physical pain, which taints the heart to transform the child into a morally reprehensible grown-up. The sensation of timidity and yearning never brings out a reassuring answer for the children as they fall deep into the vortex of dishonor. The promise of steady job for blue collar workers in plush foreign land and sociopolitical instability of third-world countries pushes masses of people to leave behind their children. Movies have often dealt with the angst of the psychological (or emotional) and physical abandonment of parents on the children/adults. As one could expect, most of them are inherently dramatic, working up the character’s innate goodness to manipulate our emotions. But, then there are also some true, profound works of cinema that profoundly explores the psyche of a human being, troubled by the awareness of parental abandonment.
In tales of cinema, such characters without succumbing to the wound struck deep into young heart move forward with hope to discover or re-connect with their parents. Grown-ups too make the journeys to at least confront and question about the abandonment. In Cinema, journeys like that often lead to discover a new reality — harsh or good. The protagonists discover distinct textures this godly as well as godforsaken society. Here are the ten good films where the central characters travel through new terrain to find the only, vital soul that may shower them with love. And, as I always say, this is not a definitive list, since I might be unaware of some films on the subject. If so, please enlighten me.
10. The Other Side aka Al otro lado (2004)
Gustavo Loza’s simple and beautiful movie tells three non-connected stories of three children from Mexico (Priciliano), Cuba (Angel), and Morrocco (Fatima), all sharing a common theme: absence of father in the family. The three kids are curious enough to make a journey to discover the fates of their respective father. Despite the small-scale level of the premise, the stories are well told and its efficiency is fully achieved. The narrative immerses us into the three different cultures. Gustavo Lazo elegantly mixes surrealistic elements with the harsh realism of the subject. The pathos and tragedy of the tales are also diffused with a sense of hope.
9. That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010)
Anuraj Kashyap’s distressing thriller focuses on Britain-based Ruth (Kalki Koechlin) who comes to Mumbai to find her biological father. She manages to find employment in a massage parlor and gets caught under the crevices of a divisive personal identity. The city’s underbelly pulls her into labyrinthine of ugliness. Her independent spaces are conquered and alienation increases. Ruth’s quest isn’t entirely of sentimental reasons; she also needs answers to the troubling questions. Eventually, she finds out her father and the truth only sends jolts of shock. While the men’s oppression and their soulless behavior in the uncaring society is a predominant theme, I felt there’s the usual bit of digressions from director Kashyap that didn’t kept me invested in Ruth’s quest till the end. But, still a provocative work with pertinent questions.
8. Under the Same Moon (2007)
Patricia Riggen’s heart-tugging debut feature is about a hardly working Mexican single mom in Los Angeles, illegally employed as the cleaning woman. She scrapes together some money to send her to the young son Carlitos, who is now 12 years old and last saw his mom at the age of five. The weekly phone calls help the mom and son to get through the years of separation, although Carlitos is soon affected by the death of his grandmother. The boy decides to cross the border and track his mother. Despite the sentimentality attached with the film’s ‘love conquers all’ narrative trajectory, it works fine as a story of resilience and hope, elevated by the performances of Kate del Castillo and Adrian Alonso.
7. The Beautiful Country (2004)
Hans PeterMoland’s lovingly crafted journey concerns a disheveled young man Binh, the son of a Vietnamese woman and an American GI, who is forced to endure the insults because of the mixed racial heritage. He is called as ‘bui doi’ (translates as ‘less than dust’). Binh treasures the photo of him as a baby with his mom and dad, standing in front of a hairdresser shop in Saigon. Binh sets off to track his mother and eventually is destined to track down his father (Nick Nolte). Despite the predictable plot nature, what makes it a must watch is Stuary Dyburgh’s cinematography (makes you recall Terrence Malick’s works, who is one of the movie’s producers). The restrained directorial abilities also elegantly convey the struggles and sufferings of Asian emigrants. The understated handling of the father and son reunion is one of the film’s beautiful moments.
6. Boy and the World (2013)
Ale Abreu’s near non-narrative animated feature, diffused with abstract imagery tells the story of a small village boy journeying to search for his father in a soulless industrial landscape. Ale’s vision smartly captures the contrasting liveliness of a natural world with that of the emptiness of urban frenzy. By showcasing his vision through the boy’s eyes, we are also able to feel his sense of fear due to the lack of human warmth. Apart from making a strong sociopolitical comment through the unique visual style, Ale’s movie is a lament for the children enduring the pain of growing up without ever feeling the parental affection.
5. The Italian (2005)
Andrei Karvchuk’s ‘Dickensian’ drama is set in late 90’s Russia, where in the brink of economic collapse poor people started to abandon their children in orphanages. The overrun orphanages with quite a few adult kids install an alternate economy: one that relies in theft and prostitution. Six year old Vanya stays in such an orphanage and doesn’t feel thrilled when a wealthy Italian couple offers to adopt him. The jealous, fellow orphans give Vanya the nick-name ‘Italian’. One day a poor mother comes to orphanage searching for her son. She is harassed by the thugs running the orphanage, telling that her son has already been given to adoption. This incident makes Vanya to seek out his own mother, journeying through the bleak Russian landscape. The narrative is juxtaposed with cursory kindness and stark brutality. There’s not much sentimentality but Vanya’s angelic face and his alleged fate would haunt us for days. The orphaned state of Vanya is also seen to be an allegory for the whole Russian nation.
4. Kikujiro (1999)
Takeshi Kitano’s playful human drama is about little neglected boy Masao, who travels a long distance to see his biological mother. In the journey, he comes across a grumpy, middle-aged guy (Kitano). We learn this guy’s name only towards the end and he empathizes with Masao as the boy reminds him of his own childhood. Together they have mini-adventures and set out to meet the women, who brought them out into the world, only to abandon them. This film has an uneven tone (unlike Kitano’s stupendous“Sonatine” and “Hana-bi”) and minimizes the impact of few serious themes, but still Kitano’s irreplaceable on-screen persona plus the bittersweet nature of visuals (Ozu-esque sense of framing) impressed me. The boy’s isolation and desire for freedom and parental love is perfectly staged in some of the little moments. Sekiguchi who plays Masao gives an earnest and nuanced performance.
[Tamil film-maker Mr. Myskin was inspired by this on-screen sublime journey to make “Nandalala”].
3. Incendies (2010)
Dennis Villeneuve’s searing drama opens with a haunting image of a small Arab boy having his head shaved in preparation for holy war. The boy’s intense eyes depicts that he has been rejected the parental love. The story starts with death of Nawal Marwan, who sends shock waves to her two adult children – Jeanne and Simon – through her last will. The dead mother has asked her children to deliver two sealed letters: one to their father and the other to a brother. Jeanne and Simon never know about their father’s whereabouts and didn’t even know that they had a brother. Jeanne decides to make a journey deep into a blood-drenched land, where militant Christians and Muslims are slaughtering each other in an unending cycle of civil war. She also tracks down her mother’s horrid past, which she never shared with anyone else. This is a beautiful and sad movie depicting how evil rises within an individual, who lacks parental love and how that evilness could be obliterated by staring into its face with unbridled love. Despite the sociopolitical overtures, “Incendies” tells a very personal story about abandoned and lost souls.
2. The Central Station (1998)
Walter Salles’ emotionally powerful Brazilian movie pivots around two people: Doara, a middle-aged, retired school teacher and a boy named Josue. Dora writes letters for illiterates, setting a table near the Central Station. One day, Josue and his mother come to Dora to write a letter to the boy’s estranged father. The sequence of events makes Josue a near orphan and he wanders near the Central Station. The self-centered, cynical Dora goes over a change and decides to join Josue, in pursuit of his father. “Central Station” celebrates the joy we attain by being compassionate and tender. Te beautiful on-location cinematography pays fitting tribute to the neo-realist cinema. The characters are never portrayed as ‘types’ and they aren’t diffused with angelic qualities. Both Dora and Josue have their own flaws and bitter view of world. The agony and helplessness of Josue is touchingly portrayed without extinguishing the sense of hope. The narrative transcends the inherent generic nature of the tale to depict the yearning for kinship and scars of social ills.
1. Landscape in the Mist (1988)
Greek autuer Theodoros Angelopoulos in “Landscape in the Mist” hauntingly visualizes the odyssey of two children – teenage girl Voula and little boy Alexander—searching for their unknown father. The siblings hop onto a train leaving Greece to Germany, where their mother has told them that their father lives. The fruitlessness of the central characters’ search is revealed earlier as Angelopoulos glacial pace observes the impactful journey. As Voula and Alexander traverses through industrial wastelands, searching for the fundamental being of love (father), we can’t stop lamenting for our emotionally & economically afflicted societies. The individual psychologies of the kids aren’t portrayed in a clear-cut manner as Angelopoulos’ journeys are mystical and abstractly contemplate human’s relation to the natural world. Gradually, we are also able to develop feelings for the distressed siblings, although there’s none of the conventional theatrical behavior or manipulative camera movements. There’s one long shot in this film focused on the backside of a truck, which I could never forget in my life. The power of the images in that shot meditates upon children’s bruised emotions by the adult world and by the disappearing sense of family. Like “The Italian”, the parent-less and nation-less stance of the kids is interpreted through an allegorical lens.
The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)
A warm-hearted Disney tale (set in the depression era), about a brave young girl (played by Meredith Salengar), who makes a cross-country journey from Chicago to join her father.