David’s Ten Criterion Collection Films to Celebrate Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day weekend, besides being one of those pleasant harbingers of spring and typically the occasion for a time of family togetherness, can also be a bit of an awkward time for your typical film geek. Sure, some of us have awesome moms and we enjoy the opportunity to let her know just how wonderful and special she is to us. But let’s admit it, parental relationships also create their share of awkwardness and tension. Even though none of us came into this world by any other route than through our mother, things happen along the way in that pivotal mother-child attachment that tend to complicate the situation going forward.

So even though today is an occasion to celebrate all those wonderful characteristics about Mom that we love and appreciate so much, there’s always more to the story. Let’s take a stroll through a few of the many moods of Motherhood, as captured in that eclectic catalog of human behavior known as the Criterion Collection. As was the case with last year’s Father’s Day column, this isn’t meant to be a “best of” or comprehensive list. It’s just based on films I’ve seen myself – so if you have more or better suggestions, leave a comment in the box below!

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1.  The Seventh Seal – The Young Mother

Mia, the kindly and beautiful wife of Jof, a troubled visionary traveling actor, practically epitomizes that joyful and gracious phase of life when a woman has brought her first child into the world and the most important thing to her is to revel in the wondrous simplicity of a brand new baby.

Mia isn’t necessarily a major character in this famously allegorical tale, but she plays an important part in The Seventh Seal. Her obvious and abundant love, not just for her baby but for the child’s father, brings touches of levity, warmth and robust sensuality into a story that’s too often characterized as stark, brooding and humorless.

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2. Bigger Than Life – The Compensating Mother

Despite what I said above, it’s not always the moms who are complicating things on the home front during our growing up years; quite often it can be our dads. Lou Avery offers a great example of the exasperating plight that a faithful wife can find herself in when hubby takes a dive off the deep end. As her formerly straight-laced husband Ed Avery succumbs to the depravities associated with cortisone addiction, assuming a frightening grandiosity that has him feeling Bigger Than Life, she has to walk the dangerous line between caring properly for her son Richie, one of his increasingly psychotic dad’s prime targets, while still showing proper respect for the paternal authority that society considered a father’s due back in those days.

Despite her best effort to tread carefully, a fateful glass of milk tips the balance, leading to one of the most disturbing domestic meltdowns ever captured on screen.

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3. Brief Encounter – The Conflicted Mother

Years of sacrifice, denial and remaining willfully oblivious to her own needs can take its toll on a mother’s resilience against boredom and emotional numbness. Once life settles into a bland, stale, repetitious routine, she may find herself facing a choice between giving up whatever hope she had for much-needed personal fulfillment, or taking dreadful risks to find that release despite the massive disruption it might cause to people she loves deep down. That’s the dilemma faced by Laura Jesson, a comfortably privileged yet emotionally neglected housewife whose husband is a decent enough chap but simply not that attentive to the loneliness that threatens to engulf her.

Happenstance puts her in the company of a handsome doctor, similarly alienated from his own wife and household. Through their Brief Encounter, the two of them connect instantly, deeply, amazingly… and thoughts of a new life, an exotic adventure, a rapturous union of kindred souls course through her imagination. And yet there’s Fred, sitting at home, working his crossword puzzle, and the children, Bobbie and Margaret. Oh, whatever is a romantically confused wife and mother to do?

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4. Hamlet – The Betraying Mother

While I can’t exactly elevate Brief Encounter‘s final scene to the ranks of a ‘happy ending,’ it seems clear enough that whatever else happens from there, Laura probably never wound up taking the route traveled by the notorious Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and mother of Hamlet who infamously ran all too quickly to the side of her late husband’s brother soon after the King’s mysterious death.

Volumes have been written about the torturous ripple effects of Gertrude’s unseemly indulgence, which a closer analysis reveals to be more likely based on a naive and shallow love of pleasure and comfort more than an intentional effort to cheat on her husband and participate in his murder. Still, her hasty remarriage and lack of insight into her son’s well-being erupted into a major rift with cataclysmic consequences… something a more intuitively attuned mother would have noticed and dealt with before things spun so badly out of control.

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5. All That Heaven Allows – The Widowed Mother

Ah, which Douglas Sirk/Jane Wyman collaborative rumination on mid-50s widowhood do I go with? Magnificent Obsession at least deserves a mention here, but the outrageous plot twists and pseudo-philosophical hokum at the heart of that film bring it down just a notch below its marvelous follow-up. In All That Heaven Allows, recently widowed Cary Scott finds her tightly managed perch atop her upper-middle class social hierarchy tossed into upheaval when she develops strong affections for a hunky free-thinking gardener who’s just too young and virile to make a respectable partner for a distinguished woman of her age. And never mind what the neighbors say, what’s really messing with her mind is how to fend off the vicious innuendos of her own children!

Obviously, going on with life after the too-young death of a dearly beloved spouse is a difficult and serious matter. Cary’s deft negotiations between the demands of strained maternal relationships and her right to pursue happiness on her own terms shows the wrenching poignancy of being a single older woman. And just a hint for any last minute Mother’s Day shoppers: if your mom’s living alone at this stage of her life, I recommend that you go spend time with her on a regular basis, rather than just buy her a nice big flat screen HDTV to handle those duties in your stead.

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6. The 400 Blows – The Hot Mother

Among several reasons that teen pregnancies are rightfully discouraged in any well-informed approach to sex education is that in just about all cases, the mother has not really had the chance to grow up herself, either physically or emotionally. Such was apparently the case with Gilberte Doinel, the mother of Antoine who impresses most viewers for two reasons: 1) her apparent disinterest in spending quality time with her son and 2) her hotness. Yes indeed, the actress Claire Maurier was a good looker, and sure seems pretty young to be the mom of a 12 year old. You can do the math, and from there it’s a fairly easy conjecture as to some of the family dysfunctions that took place in the years preceding the action of The 400 Blows and come to a new stage of fruition toward the end of the film.

Even Julien, Antoine’s adoptive step-father, admits that he married Gilberte based mainly on his lust for her, taking on the kid like so much baggage or the simple price of admission to get into bed with her for the long haul. The deal hasn’t worked out so well for any of them, as Gilberte seems frustrated with her lot and has taken on a (not so) secret lover, Julien recognizes that his wife is running around on him and Antoine is suffocating from the unbearable stench of naked adult hypocrisy. Though they do manage to have at least one happy night out together at the movies, The 400 Blows serves as a cautionary tale to teenage girls (and boys) who do the things that lead to unplanned children coming into the world and injecting massive chaos into their lives if they don’t get serious about parenting when that responsibility arrives.

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7. A Christmas Tale – The Ailing Mother

Time, age, genetics and smoking lots and lots of Virginia Slims cigarettes can take its toll on a body, and when that body happens to be the imperious mother of a tension-wracked family gathering for the first time in a long time for a holiday reunion, one person’s health problems become quite literally big problems for everyone else in the clan. Junon Vuillard is a powerful presence in her family, more formidable than Abel, her older, slightly doddering husband, but not all of her children have responded so well to her style of parenting – they have powers of their own that tend to collide rather than complement.

As the most contemporary mother featured on this list, Catherine Deneuve’s impressive portrayal of a woman working to simultaneously reconcile as best she can some of the wounds she inadvertently inflicted on her children while also tending to the urgent demands of the here-and-now speaks quite effectively to the times we live in. A Christmas Tale may be one of Criterion’s most ‘under the radar’ releases of the past few years, but it’s an unsparing, fascinating look into contemporary family life that I enthusiastically recommend, regardless of the season.

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8. Everlasting Moments – The Self-Expressing Mother

Another recent film, released in 2008 but with a story set nearly 100 years earlier, Everlasting Moments introduces us to Maria Larsson, a supposedly typical Swedish wife and mother who possessed artistic and creative gifts that her culture would have easily, I can even say preferably, would have overlooked or at least kept under wraps for the sake of convenience and simplicity. In Maria’s case, the medium of expression is the then-burgeoning but still exotic art of photography, capturing images in big boxy cameras that required a certain solemnity of purpose that has all but escaped us in the digital age. Everlasting Moments is a quiet, subtle film that requires close attention to fully appreciate and savor.

Its emphasis on how a woman manages to transcend the limitations of presumptive patriarchy, an abusive alcoholic husband and the numerous cultural and economic pressures weighing in upon her in such a way as to let her own voice and vision emerge in the form of a legacy passed down to her children is quite moving to anyone who’s observed his or her own mother have to persevere against such obstacles. I can’t help but think of the heritage of crafts and music that my own mother and grandmother passed down to me, that I’ve seen continued through my own children, and then to consider the social burdens placed on women of earlier times… well, it just fills me with a whole new level of gratitude and respet for what they had to put up with.

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9. Hoop Dreams – The Holding-It-Together Mother

Not that being a mother nowadays is all that much easier! Emma Gates, the mother of William Gates (the young basketball player from inner-city Chicago, not the Microsoft billionaire dude), demonstrates an incredible degree of resilience and determination as she puts so much effort into the (practically) single-handed raising of her talented but troubled son. Hoop Dreams is a nearly 3-hour documentary, shot over the course of five years, chronicling the experiences of two young men tagged as Division I NCAA basketball prospects by a coterie of scouts, coaches and sports reporters always on the lookout for the next Michael Jordan (or whatever other major sports superstar you care to name; Jordan was just the preeminent name of the era in which this documentary was made.).

Though basketball is the glue that holds this real-life narrative together, Hoop Dreams is about so much more than what happens on the court, and though the family lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, the two central protagonists are merely sidebar stories, Emma Gates and Arthur’s mother Sheila serve as memorable examples of women who truly pour their hearts and souls into providing their sons at least a chance to succeed in the cold cruel world that she and so many others in their predicament have experienced. They serve as a fitting reminder of the pain and toil that so many mothers have to endure simply as a matter of survival, both for themselves and the precious children who so easily overlook what’s been sacrificed on their behalf.

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10. Make Way for Tomorrow – The Old and In the Way Mother

Finally, I guess it’s only fitting that we wind up with one of the most sentimental, heart-tugging and unapologetically tear-jerking films to be found in the vast expanse of the Criterion Collection. My most eloquent efforts can only fade in pale imitation in their power to evoke emotions when placed alongside the plaintive mutterings and musings of Lucy Cooper, one half of an elderly couple whose house has been foreclosed on in the midst of the Great Depression, forcing the forlorn pair to rely on the grace and forebearance of their selfish and preoccupied adult children. Though this is a film from 1937, its themes and essential conflicts carry a lot of relevance for today. It is interesting, however, to contemplate just how old-fashioned the presumably modern and flamboyant younger folks seem by today’s standards. Beulah Bondi’s performance as Lucy Cooper, meandering her way into her daughter-in-law’s card-playing tutorial meetings and trying to teach some measure of virtue to her hot-to-trot granddaughter Rhoda, is a textbook case of the motherly art of indirect, heart-piercing guilt trips delivered through the most innocuous phrasings.

The other night, I offered up Make Way for Tomorrow as a suggestion for Mothers Day viewing in response to an inquiry I saw on Facebook. A few commenters replied that Make Way for Tomorrow, along with the film it helped inspire, Ozu’s Tokyo Story, were perhaps the worst Mothers Day films they could imagine! I guess it’s all just a matter of perspective. I’ll agree with those nay-sayers to this extent: if your relationship with your mom is fractured past the point of reconciliation, or she’s departed from this world and you can no longer make amends, then sure, Make Way for Tomorrow is nothing more than a recipe for implacable remorse and regret. But if there’s still time for you to show your mom how much you care, how grateful you are for the love and dedication she’s shown, despite whatever mistakes or disappointments she’s inflicted along the way, then you have nothing to fear from watching Make Way for Tomorrow. My hunch is that by watching and taking its message to heart, you’re much less likely to ever take Mama for granted again!

David Blakeslee

David hosts the Criterion Reflections podcast, a series that reviews the films of the Criterion Collection in their chronological order of release. The series began in 2009 and those essays (covering the years 1921-1967) can be found via the website link provided below. In March 2016, the blog transferred to this site, and in August 2017, the blog changed over to a podcast format. David also contributes to other reviews and podcasts on this site. He lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan and works in social services. Twitter / Criterion Reflections


  • Fun piece.

    The perfect mother/daughter movie is Grey Gardens. For a take on mother/son relations see Mamma Roma. Absent (or deceased) fathers figure in both.

  • Grey Gardens came very close to making the cut for my ten films, but it’s been quite awhile since I watched it, well before my blogging habit began, so I figured I wouldn’t force the issue. Great addition though! I still have yet to see Mamma Roma, but it’s not too far off in the distance as I make my chronological way through the Criterion Collection! 

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