If there’s any filmmaker working today who defines the concept of “an acquired taste,” it would certainly be Dario Argento. Floundering in the industry for the last 20 years, Argento finally arrives to complete his “Three Mothers” trilogy that was last heard from with 1980’s baffling “Inferno.” It’s a blood-soaked homecoming of sorts for the director, and “Mother of Tears” reawakens his mischievous spirit. It’s pure insanity, but it’s a welcome restoration of Argento’s once Kong-sized chutzpah.
When a casket is exhumed for plot reassignment, an urn is found within that contains troubling markings the church wants a museum to decipher. Now in Rome, the urn is opened by the museum staff, including art restoration student Sarah (Asia Argento), who witnesses the destructive power of the contents as her colleague is slaughtered by occult forces. Panicked, Sarah searches for help, only to learn the opened urn has brought “The Mother of Tears,” Mater Lachrimarum (Moran Atias), back into power. An evil witch bent on destroying humanity, the spirit plunges Rome into chaos, forcing Sarah to confront her own powers and fight back with the otherworldly help of her dead mother (Daria Nicolodi).
It all started with 1977’s “Suspiria,” Arguably Argento’s finest film; the eerie gothic horror masterpiece inflated the director’s already baroque flirtations, creating a foundation of satanic mythmaking that elevated the normal routine of throat-slashings and unfortunate accidents to a fascinating new level. “Inferno” continued the mysterious journey; it was a gorgeous production only offset by a suffocative quality that eases up on repeat viewings. It’s to Argento’s credit that “Tears” is able to fit in snugly with the previous two films, furthering the exploits of unstoppable witchcraft and curious evil architecture that began 30 years ago.
What’s important to note before watching “Tears” is simply that Argento will never make films the way he once did. The years of richly-textured film stocks, compositional bravado, lenient rating systems, and the isolation of the Italian film world are long gone. “Tears” is no “Suspiria” or even “Inferno,” yet it’s a fairly close approximation of the hell Argento once raised with mind-blowing competence. Ingest “Tears” with some lowered expectations, and it’s a dynamically entertaining ride. Anything too high will result in an immediate case of the giggles.
Storming back into the bloodied footprints of this loose trilogy, “Tears” is a fearless offering of black magic bedlam. Bound by some relatively interesting literary machinations, the rest of the picture is a springboard for Argento to let loose with genre repulsion, mounting his most violent film in years. “Tears” holds an apocalyptic tone that develops deliriously throughout the film, building to points of sheer absurdity that will tickle the average Argento enthusiast and appall the newcomer. The director takes the possibilities of the supernatural premise as a challenge to recharge old creative batteries, and if there’s a filmmaker out there who can stage one stunning death-by-intestine-strangling, it’s Argento.
Unlike “Suspiria” and “Inferno,” “Tears” is a more rudimentary viewing experience. Argento doesn’t quite have the budget to launch his imagination to the stars, so the film remains grounded even when attempting some lofty ideas of witching hour anarchy. As with his other endeavors, the performances are secondary to the mayhem, leaving real-life daughter Asia to fend for herself with pronounced reactions and breathless response, and offering former partner-in-crime Nicolodi an unflattering cameo as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the picture, who pushes Sarah to explore her gifts from the spirit world. The talent does as well as can be expected under Argento’s disinterested watch, but the star of the show has always been the brutality, and “Tears” has no shortage of that.
What Mater Lachrimarum’s wrath brings to Rome are a series of suicides, murders, and violent crimes that offer Argento a shot at playing by his old rules with phony, but effective make-up work and rivers of blood; the picture even takes an “Omen” stance by easing the demonic dial up to introduce new sequences of suspense into the story. It doesn’t take long for Argento to step over the line with a moment of vaginal trauma and two, count ‘em, two scenes of infant slaughter, yet the whole caboodle sits comfortably in the filmmaker’s loony bosom. “Tears” is gratuitous, but never mean-spirited and, for fans, it’s a kick to see the director back on a stable playing field, dreaming up ludicrousness with an abandon he hasn’t held in years.
Does “Tears” make sense? Sort of. The mythology of the “Three Mothers” backstory is tied closely to the other films this time around, making it more of a sequel than a thematic cousin. It’s still a cloudy cocktail of witchcraft, paranoia, and religious fervor, but it comes together nicely, with Sarah taking a symbolic trip to Hell in the finale to break up a lurid ghoul orgy (the filmmaker loves his lesbianism). Argento has never been one to articulate story convincingly, but “Tears” has been streamlined to fit more worldwide tastes, and the clarity helps.
I could see “Mother of Tears” failing a great deal of audience members. It’s a broad statement of pandemonium that will make those weaned on modern scares cringe relentlessly. The picture is far more harmonious to those accustomed to Argento’s lunacy and willing to swallow his mistakes. It’s an imperfect motion picture, often downright ridiculous, but it’s a blast of lusty, violent fun that doesn’t come around nearly enough these days. Take it as a flamboyant exclamation point on a stalled career, and it’s practically irresistible.