Pregnant prisoners are the subject of 107 Mothers, Slovakia’s striking but somewhat sluggish International Feature Oscar entry directed by Peter Kerekes who co-wrote with Ivan Ostrochovský, winning Best Screenplay in the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons section earlier this year.
Inspired by the true stories of women in a Ukrainian prison, 107 Mothers centers on Lesya (Maryna Klimova), who’s serving a seven-year sentence. After giving birth to her child, she remains in jail and can see the baby for set periods each day, just like all the other mothers incarcerated with her. Meanwhile, prison warden Iryna (Iryna Kiryazeva) watches the inmates quietly, observing their daily routine.
Kiryazeva’s expressive face brings moments of gentle comedy, but the overall tone is that of a serious observational docudrama, fascinating in parts and slow in others.
There’s no strong narrative arc; more a series of vignettes. The most intriguing parts of the film are the details of these women’s lives. The majority have been locked up for crimes of passion, having murdered their husband, or occasionally, his mistress.
It’s shocking to hear them talk quite matter of factly about the details of their crimes. They show their inner feelings in revealing sessions, recalling recurring dreams about their victims. Jealousy links many of these women to each other, as does a certain resigned ennui: there is little anger or visible emotion, save when a character risks losing her child. Heartbreakingly, the children are often sent to an orphanage at the age of three, if the mother is still in jail.
Iryna listens intently to the women’s conversations with their visitors, and she also reads and censors the letters sent to them by family and lovers. Amusingly, both can be loaded with dirty talk. The frisky letters contrast with Iryna’s quiet private life, much to the chagrin of her mother, who pesters her to go out and meet a man.
Interestingly, men are heard and referred to but rarely seen in 107 Mothers, reflecting the dominance of women in the prison.
Perhaps the strongest element of the film is its visual aesthetic: cinematographer Martin Kollar makes memorable work of the stark, repetitive imagery the prison presents, such as a row of women nursing babies in identical white uniforms. It’s these visual touches that stay with you — along with the sad fates of the mothers and their children.
International Critics Line
March 17, 2022
March 7, 2022
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