" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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A balletic trip through American deserts and, apparently, a telling of the Virgin Mary’s flight across Egypt (so it says on the film’s festival listing), Ma is a visually strong work about a woman constrained by fate.

Not many films are made by a writer/director/ choreographer, but this one is. Celia Rowlson-Hall also plays the title character. When she introduces herself in close-up, she’s wearing a white towel over her head, and with her green eyes she resembles the “Afghan Girl” from the National Geographic cover.

Feature-Length Dance Performance

The film is set in a sun-bleached world full of bright haze. There isn’t much contrast between pale blue sky and pale yellow sand, though water and sand are important elements.

Rowlson-Hall is the mistress of sand and barrenness
Rowlson-Hall is the mistress of sand and barrenness

Ma’s wanderings have the deliberate grace of a dancer, and so does the injured limp of the young man she meets (ID’ed in the credits as Daniel, played by Matt Lauria).

The film is a feature-length work. It’s not quite a ballet, but it has elements of a dance performance. It’s not a puzzle, nor is it a literal telling of Mary’s journey. If you hadn’t guessed, the story is told without dialogue.

Different as Water and Sand

Since you may be reading this review after you’ve seen the film, I’ll give you my take on the plot. I don’t think Ma is that kind of movie where you are “supposed” to get a certain interpretation, so hopefully you made your own sense of it.

When Ma and Daniel meet, they drive to the nearest settlement, a dusty motel. Here, Ma is a part of a community, very briefly. The motel is full of other civilians, and she laughs and cries along with her TV.

But as soon as she allows herself a little sensuality, she is met by 7 archetypal men who rape her. And from then on she seems to be cursed by fate.

Daniel knows Ma has been raped, and together they move on to the next motel. Daniel is protective, sympathetic, and tender. He seems ready to stay with Ma as a husband. He also senses that a sexual relationship is not in the cards, creating different kinds of tension for him and for her. Ma’s fragility in the wake of rape makes her seem ascetic.

Ma and Daniel are earth and water. She is the mistress of sand and barrenness. Even a little water seems to nauseate her. Daniel, on the other hand, loves to swim. Incompatible as they are, they share a long courtship.

Transcendence

Just when Ma seems to be open to the idea of water — they encounter some “baptists” at a creek; Daniel buys Ma a ring; and Ma sits next to the swimming pool, toying with Daniel — the men reappear. There is no rape this time, but there is debauchery and Daniel leaves Ma to join them.

After this, Ma has an elaborate fit, after which she is pushed to the next level of asceticism, becoming a Christ-like holy figure, no longer of this world but transformed into a higher plane through her suffering.

Now the film gets more weird and more interesting. The debauched mortals wander the parched desert while Ma travels to the promised land — Las Vegas — to bear a son among the angels.

Room at the Inn

Obviously, Ma is an experimental film, and it’s not for all tastes.

I did like it. I liked the grace of the performers. I like the allegorical elements made from simple everyday objects — sand from a tap, an abandoned swimming pool, a sudden burst of rain. And while “like” is probably the wrong word, I felt the tension of Ma’s ever-shrinking world.

But I probably wouldn’t recommend Ma to you unless I knew you.

I’ve come to like sacred music, even as an atheist. And I feel there is something of the sacred in art like Ma. The avowed Biblical references suggest it, but even on its own merits it suggests the limits of human society and a power greater than ourselves that can be capricious and unfair.

There is room for film like this in our culture.