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Leading Women: Strong Characters, Traditional Role
by Mary Nyiri

Three films feature women in lead roles. However, the actors perform the very traditional female character role of mother. Whether such roles can be considered progress towards equality for women in film is indeed debatable.

The portrayal of a mother who will literally do anything for the good of her child was vividly demonstrated in the suspenseful German film PELIKANBLUT (Pelican Blood) directed by Katrin Gebbe (Germany, Bulgaria 2019). Wiebke (Nina Hoss) is single, has a nine year old adopted daughter Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo), and trains horses for the police. Wiebke decides to adopt another daughter, so with Nicolina they travel to Bulgaria to pick up five-year-old Raya (Katerina Lipovska). Raya seems sweet and shy, at least until she starts breaking dishes, throwing food, and smearing her own feces on bathroom walls. Wiebke seeks professional help and learns horrifying details of Raya’s short life. The story then begins to blur between mental illness and possession by evil spirits, either possibility caused by Raya’s early trauma. Wiebke, totally committed to not abandoning the poor, suffering child, tries to morph into Raya’s birth mother first by inducing breast milk and nursing Raya and then seeking assistance from a much darker medicine. Wiebke rejects a stable relationship with a very nice policeman, emotionally hurts Nicolina and loses her contract to train horses due to her obsession with her overwhelming maternal need to make Raya well. Despite some rather farfetched plot diversions, the long ride is well worth it due to brilliant performances by Nina Hoss and Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo.

"Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws." –Barbara Kingsolver

Sacrifice is just what mothers do for their children, although sometimes that realization comes late in the game. In WILD ROSE directed by Tom Harper (Great Britain 2018), more than anything Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley), mother of two from Glasgow, wants to be a country singer. She spent time in jail for attempted drug smuggling during which her mother, Marion (Julie Walters) cared for her kids. Now free, Marion encourages Rose-Lynn to focus on her kids and get a real job. Rose-Lynn barely makes the effort, instead pursuing her singing career and dreams of Nashville. She leaves her kids behind, mostly with her mom and friends. Almost closing a deal for money to get to Nashville, Rose-Lynn breaks down under the pressure of leaving her son with a broken arm in the hospital to perform at a party where she lied to the hosts about her criminal record. Shattered, she’s back at home with her own mom, taking care of her own kids. Then Rose-Lynn’s mother makes a sacrifice for her daughter. Regrets that come with all those thoughts of what she could of, should of done intensified by deep maternal love, propel Marion to give Rose-Lynn her savings so that she can try her luck in Nashville. But will her luck run out?

What is in “the best interests of the child” is used by courts, judges, administrators, various agencies, governments, and even the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child to decide who is most capable of taking care of a child. However, so often life intervenes in unforeseen circumstances, and what the child finds best is not necessarily easy to determine or even in consideration. MATERNAL (Hogar), directed by Maura Delpero (Italy, Argentina 2019), looks into the many dilemmas of young single mothers struggling with the demands of childrearing. The Spanish title of this film, Hogar, means home, referring to a Catholic home for unwed mothers in a convent in Buenos Aires. Two teenage friends, Fati (Denise Carrizo) and Lu (Augustina Malale) live in the convent with their children under the strict rules of nuns. Fati seems content to live in the convent, away from the abuses that occurred in her family home. Fati enjoys her son and being part of the close knit community of teenage mothers and their children. Lu, however, who occasionally plays with her daughter Nina (Isabella Cilia), longs for the freedom of the outside world and the overwhelming passions of her boyfriend. Eventually, Lu simply walks away, abandoning her daughter and her friend Fati. Nina is heartbroken and Fati tries to help, but it is the kindness of a new novice from Italy who recently joined the convent, Sister Paola (Lidiya Liberman), who gives terribly lonely Nina the love that she needs most. When Nina sneaks into Sister Paola’s room, the Sister lets her stay and later Nina moves in with her. More and more Sister Paola cares for Nina as if she is her own child. The nuns are not pleased. But then, weeks later, Lu shows up back at the convent. Lu is told by the nuns that her child has been referred to the social services court for determination of what is in the best interests of the child. Lu is outraged at the possibility of having her child taken from her and she is totally jealous of the relationship that has developed between Sister Paolo and Nina. And Sister Paolo struggles with her own maternal love for a child she can never have. Or can she? What sacrifice is Sister Paolo willing to make for Nina?

These three films illustrate that female leads can and do make great films without the need of a leading man. Although the traditional role of mother is without a doubt extremely important, I look forward to more diverse leading female characters. Like Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, in Hidden Figures (based on the true story of Johnson who worked as a mathematician for NASA and was also a mother), or Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in Star Wars, a leader who could totally stand her ground, or Miranda Priestly, a leader in the fashion magazine industry played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Women become successful professionals by usually working harder and for less money than their male counterparts, often while raising children at the same time. More women in leading roles based on strong female characters can only help in the women’s march towards equality.