What is motherhood? Maura Delpero’s Maternal shows us a world where two forms of motherhood – the single mother and the saintly mother – collide.
Set within the walls of a so-called Hogar, an Italian religious shelter for young single mothers in Buenos Aires, the film follows three women: Sister Paola, an Italian nun about to take her religious vows; Luciana, a teenage mother struggling to care for her daughter; and Fatima, another teenage mother with a young son, who is pregnant with her second child. All three struggle in their own ways with the implications of motherhood. The streamlined white habits of the nuns contrast with the bright colors, short skirts and tight clothing of the teenage mothers.
The nuns are silent and speak only to pray. The young women shout loudly and argue frequently. Often their voices merge with the crying of their babies. While the nuns’ rooms are white and bare, the young women’s rooms are littered with toys and children’s drawings. For the nuns, motherhood is primarily a manual of maternal purity, aspiration and reproductive sanctity. But for the young women they shelter, motherhood is only a pragmatic manual for survival. The nuns cannot understand the young women’s realities of sex, birth, and parenting. This lack of understanding creates a struggle for the children. Maternal works on multiple levels by showing the complexity of care and love. The film plays with religious symbolism and themes of temptation and freedom without making harsh judgments. It is a nuanced portrayal of motherhood that is disarming, touching and charmingly funny.