Aleksandr Sokurov's much-admired 1997 film "Mother and Son" is 68 minutes of quiet, contemplative dreaminess. On the big screen, it was probably breathtaking. On DVD (and especially in this release; more on that later), it loses something but still has some appreciable traits.
The story is the very picture of simplicity. There are two characters, Mother (Gudrun Geyer) and Son (Aleksei Ananishnov), both played by non-actors. They live in an isolated cottage surrounded by lush fields and forests. Mother is dying. Son is comforting her in her final hours. He carries her outside for a walk. He takes a walk by himself and contemplates his mother's mortality. There is very little dialogue.
It sounds boring, and I suppose in the right (or, rather, wrong) context, it would be. But Sokurov and cinematographer Aleksi Fyodorov have done something extraordinary with the film's appearance. Through shading, composition and some tricks with the lenses, they've made nearly every frame look like a painting. To enhance this, Sokurov includes many long, unmoving takes, with no quick cuts to distract. As if touring a museum, the viewer has plenty of time to gaze at the gauzy images and admire their aesthetic beauty.
Personally, I find the film's visual elements far more compelling than its philosophies or its two characters. The story doesn't resonate with me the way I know it has with others. Still, as a marriage of all the elements of film -- sound, picture, and story -- it's an effectively moody work of art.
The film is in Russian with optional English subtitles. There are no alternate language tracks.
VIDEO: Here is cruel irony worthy of a depressing Russian novel. The film's greatest asset, the thing talked about most often by reviewers and commentators, is the way it LOOKS, how every frame is picturesque, how Sokurov often composed the mise-en-scene to resemble 19th-century German and Russian paintings. Yet here it is on DVD -- with a grainy, non-anamorphic transfer from a spotty, dirty, speckled print. It's like reproducing the Mona Lisa, but doing so in a magazine centerfold with the staples across her face. Why bother if you're not going to do it right?
AUDIO: On the other hand, the digital stereo sound mix is quite fetching. There's not much dialogue in the film, but it's not silent. There's subtle music and plenty of ambient sound -- the ocean, the forest, the breeze -- and it registers beautifully on DVD.
EXTRAS: Almost non-existent. Apart from the obligatory theatrical trailer, there is only a written introduction by the director -- a couple hundred words of text to say hello and thank you for watching, basically. I'm guessing Sokurov doesn't speak enough English to do an audio commentary, but surely a film as admired as this one could have attracted SOMEONE to fill in, some scholar or critic who could discuss the film for 68 minutes.
Look, either you want to watch a 68-minute Russian film with very little dialogue and only two characters, one of whom is dying, or you don't. It's a beautiful, haunting production, but that doesn't mean everyone who watches it will enjoy it.
That said, even if you do admire this film, you won't admire the DVD. The lack of extras is disappointing, and the awful transfer is inexcusable. There's almost no point in watching the film if this is how it looks.