A visually compelling film about women living and working in a Ukrainian prison, 107 Mothers opens with the piercing screams of a mother and her child. Leysa (Maryna Klimova), a new inmate, is giving birth in a dour hospital room under the soft, watchful gaze of Iryna (Iryna Kiryazeva), the prison’s ward. The relationship between these two women, teeming with anxiety, suspicion and, eventually, an understated mutual respect, becomes the focal point of this quiet docufiction.
Directed by Peter Kerekes and premiering in the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons sidebar, 107 Mothers pulls its material from the real-life stories of incarcerated women living at Odessa Correctional Facility Number 74, one of two in Ukrainian prisons where pregnant women can serve their sentences with their children. The brutal terms and conditions state, though, that after the child turns 3, they will be sent to an orphanage and forever separated from their mother. If a woman is lucky and her sentence ends around the child’s third birthday, she can apply for parole.
Visually compelling but narratively lacking.
The women in this correctional facility live an undramatic life ruled by routine. They wash, sleep and work together as hours melt into days and days into weeks. Moments of solitude (or privacy) do not exist. They conduct personal phone calls in public and answer intensely detailed health questions in the presence of multiple doctors. It’s here — constantly under surveillance — that Leysa, a restrained, observant young woman, will serve her seven-year prison sentence. When asked why she murdered her husband, Leysa answers, without affect, “Jealousy.”
Jealousy is an emotion many of the women in the prison can relate to. Through a series of one-on-one interviews, these women confess the logic behind their murders. Their responses — some tearful, others chilling and stoic — add texture to the film, raising questions about remorse and forgiveness. These interviews, conducted by Iryna, take place in the same room, multiple times a day, with the women sitting against the same drab backdrop: an empty chair with a plush burgundy cushion to the left, a sink in the back, a mirror above it and a wooden door to the right.
107 Mothers thrives on this kind of attention to detail and uniformity. Cinematographer Martin Kollar’s steady eye and distinctive visual style makes watching Kerekes’ film feel like slowly flipping through a photo book. Look closely and every shot, from the way the mothers sit on the couch where they breastfeed their children to the looks on their faces when they bake cakes for their children’s birthdays, tells its own story.
It’s disappointing, then, that the meticulousness of the film’s visual language doesn’t translate to its narrative, which occasionally gets lost. After giving birth, Leysa joins the ranks of incarcerated mothers who long for the few hours of the day they can spend with their children. She struggles to adjust to her new life in prison, finding herself bored with the schedule, which includes attending workshops led by Iryna where the women write letters to those they have harmed and ask for forgiveness.
Iryna, the reserved warden, watches Leysa’s slow, uneven adjustment. She takes a keen interest in her and tries, in her own way, to advise the young woman to repair her relationship with her mother and sister so that when her son turns 3, they can care for him. What prompts this desire is never explored, but it’s clear that Iryna, to some degree, feels responsible for Leysa’s fate. She even grows attached to Leysa’s son, spending time with him in her office and keeping him occupied with small tasks. Iryna spends most of the film confronting her own burgeoning desire to be a mother, while Leysa tries to retain her parental rights.
By its end, 107 Mothers, perhaps unwittingly, becomes a meditation on motherhood and its different forms. The most interesting conversations — between Leysa and Iryna, between Iryna and her own mother — touch on the simultaneous joy and isolation of being a mother. While the film suggests these characters possess incredible depth, the overly restrained performances keep viewers too far at bay. With no clear sense of why these women are drawn to each other or insight into what keeps them connected, it’s difficult to feel fully invested in this experimental film’s poignant thesis.