DVD Review: ‘Mammoth’ Takes Quietly Powerful Approach to Preachy Material

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CHICAGO – The relationship between American families and their foreign maids is a subject that has been tackled in a variety of previous indie pictures, from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel” to Todd Solondz’s “Storytelling.” Yet in “Mammoth,” the English-language debut from Swedish-born filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, the material is dealt with in a refreshingly humanistic way, devoid of sensationalism (the story concludes with neither deportation nor asphyxiation).

Unlike an Oscar-winning social critique like “Crash,” which succinctly summarizes its overarching message in its opening line of dialogue, “Mammoth” dodges the opportunity to preach. Moodysson is confident enough as a storyteller to allow his characters to develop organically, without feeding them through the contrived machinery of a self-consciously moralistic plot. While his previous work, such as his stellar 2000 picture “Together,” blended comedy with pathos, this film delves into considerably darker waters, exploring the connection between globalization and alienation. A more fitting title may have been, “Apart.”

HollywoodChicago.com DVD Rating: 3.5/5.0
DVD Rating: 3.5/5.0

Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams play Leo and Ellen Vidales, an exceedingly photogenic couple in New York, who share an expensive apartment, an adorable daughter, and next to no time with each other. The film opens just as Leo is heading out on a business trip to Thailand. Ellen is constantly preoccupied with her demanding job at a hospital, and routinely places her daughter, Jackie (Sophie Nyweide), in the care of her Filipino maid, Gloria (Marife Necesito). The ever-widening void that develops between Ellen and Jackie mirrors the literal separation Gloria has from her own children, who are still living in the Philippines. Gloria took the job in America so she could eventually afford a house for her family, but the prolonged time of her absence is beginning to take a toll on her kids, particularly Salvador (Jan Nicdao). Meanwhile, in Thailand, Leo finds himself with unexpected time on his hands, and becomes drawn to a bar girl (Run Srinikornchot), whose need to support her own child has led her to a life of prostitution.

Michelle Williams stars in Lukas Moodysson’s Mammoth.
Michelle Williams stars in Lukas Moodysson’s Mammoth.
Photo credit: MPI Home Video

The key theme connecting these story threads is a sort of self-defeating parental sacrifice. All of these characters are going to great lengths in order to provide for their family. Their unending quest for money has created a chasm separating them from the very people they’re striving to support. What’s strongest about the film is its avoidance of easy caricatures. I found my heart breaking for everyone onscreen, and that’s partly because the film is so expertly cast. Under the radar of most moviegoers, Williams has been delivering a variety of excellent performances in the last few years. Her portrayal of the workaholic ER surgeon, who develops maternal feelings toward a young patient, in “Mammoth” is every bit as devastating as the impoverished lost soul she played to Oscar-worthy perfection in “Wendy and Lucy.” Necesito is equally powerful as the heartbroken mother struggling to be there for her client’s child, whom she starts treating like her own, and her actual kids, who call her in tears (both Nyweide and Nicdao are remarkably natural child actors). There’s real poignancy in scenes where Necesito teaches Nyweide how to speak in her native tongue of Tagalog (which, by the way, translates the word “mammoth” as meaning “mother”).

Mammoth was released on DVD on April 20th, 2010.
Mammoth was released on DVD on April 20th, 2010.
Photo credit: MPI Home Video

Does this film lack an emotional payoff? Perhaps it does, in the limited terms of a straightforward drama. Moodysson’s film is provocative on multiple levels, and is bound to generate thoughtful discussions between the people who see it, and that, to me, is the ultimate payoff. The film is admittedly far from perfect; the soundtrack includes a few too many songs with obvious thematic lyrics such as “infrastructure will collapse.” Bernal’s character is definitely the least developed, and I didn’t much go for the subplot involving his relationship with the prostitute. Yet Moodysson is smart enough to know that a mammoth problem like globalization couldn’t possibly be solved or satisfyingly “wrapped up” in a two hour drama. He has created a deft portrait of a world out of balance, where the vital and intimate act of parenting can be commodified. It’s the type of film that grabs you as you’re watching it, and haunts you for days to come.

“Mammoth” is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and comes equipped with English and Spanish subtitles. It’s a shame that the DVD for Moodysson’s first international production isn’t accompanied by any interviews or special features that might provide some background on a filmmaker largely unknown to American audiences. The sole extra is a rather misleading theatrical trailer that presents the film as it was a straightforward infidelity drama.

‘Mammoth’ is released by MPI Home Video and stars Gael García Bernal, Michelle Williams, Marife Necesito, Sophie Nyweide, Tom McCarthy, Run Srinikornchot, Jan Nicdao and Maria Esmeralda del Carmen. It was written and directed by Lukas Moodysson. It was released on April 20th, 2010. It is not rated.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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