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The elemental drama of festival closer 'Mother and Child'

"Mother and Child," starring Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, proves that its writer-director, Rodrigo Garcia, has become a master of crafting intimate dramas for the big screen. Let's hope that in its own quiet fashion this movie builds on its festival acclaim the way "The Hurt Locker" did. (It follows "The Hurt Locker" as the closing night attraction at the Maryland Film Festival.)

Garcia has long commanded the respect of Hollywood's top actor-stars. "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" (2001) starred Glenn Close, Cameron Diaz and Calista Flockhart, and "Nine Lives" headlined Close, Robin Wright Penn, Holly Hunter and Sissy Spacek.

But it took the HBO series "In Treatment," which he developed, to demonstrate that he could compel large audiences to pay ultra-close attention to complex relationships. (Garcia also directed much of the first season and wrote the first week's five episodes.) The role of the embattled shrink at the center of "In Treatment" restored Gabriel Byrne's luster as a thinking woman's heartthrob. More important, the series offered a haven of charged adult drama — a home away from home for film lovers sick of the bombast crowding movie theaters.

It would be terrific if that series' legions of fans followed him back into the cinema for "Mother and Child." This cathartic tale of lives lost and found follows several intriguing female characters whose lives have been affected because one gave up her newborn infant for adoption at age 14. Thirty-six years later, the still-single mother has never stopped writing letters to her unknown daughter, while her child, now a top attorney, pursues a life of utter independence. Bening plays the mother, Karen; Watts plays the daughter, Elizabeth. Both are superb. So are Kerry Washington as Lucy, a woman aching to adopt a daughter, and Jackson as Watts' boss and lover, Paul, who affects her more than she expects.

Garcia goes way beyond his episodic previous films: He creates a multifaceted story that snares his subjects and his audiences in a skein of accident and incident. (His father is Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.) He started in movies as a camera operator. His rare gift is to generate rich moods and conflicts through the marriage of words and keenly observed performances. Like "In Treatment," "Mother and Child" conjures contained yet seething atmospheres. I started our conversation by asking whether one work influenced the other.

Q: "In Treatment" put viewers on the sofa of the shrink's office — and kept them there as the emotions in the room mounted. "Mother and Child" has some of the same focused quality. Were you consciously building on that style?

A:. I think the connection is that they share the same sensibility. 'In Treatment' is based on an Israeli show that was just beautifully created. When I saw it, I thought this could be so easily adapted. I also felt it was so close to my own sensibility; I felt at home in that show. I had already written a great deal of "Mother and Child" when I did "In Treatment"; then I finished it after "In Treatment."

I did both with the same cameraman, Xavier Perez Grobet. "In Treatment," we did keep very still because we thought this had to live or die by the performances. We couldn't be screwing around with the camera in that room. In "Mother and Child" I also had the idea to do it classically, and Xavier took that to the next level. He said we should never move the camera. We only move the camera two or three times in the whole movie. When we do really move it, at the end, it's very meaningful. But otherwise it's a very uninflected style.

Q: Was that done to intensify our focus on the highly inflected performances?

A: One of the advantages this kind of subject matter has, in the broadest sense, is that the emotions around it are always strong, always loaded, whether they're joyful or sad, complicated or simple. Difficult stories did come out of the old, closed adoption system [which kept the birth mother anonymous]. Of course, some closed adoptions were as happy as contemporary adoptions. But all these stories talk about our primary attachments; they involve heart-wrenching separations and very moving reunions. It's no wonder that families separated and reunited are the subjects of great books as well as the cheesiest soap operas.

Q: Do you run the risk of people thinking that you're offering a prescription for open adoptions?

A: I hope not. This movie was not even originally about adoptions. I got interested in people who lived out their lives haunted by an absent one, people who have been separated either by something like this or by war or death or divorce or exile — but people who live with a ghost in their lives. I thought it would be interesting to look at two women, a mother and a child, separated at the baby's birth. That's how the idea of adoption came in. I made the mother very young so it was certainly not an informed choice for her, it was something done to her. And when I introduced Lucy [Kerry Washington] as a third character, I thought I'd just keep going with the adoption subject. I felt Lucy also had this absent person in her life that she longed for, which was the baby she never had, never met, but dreams of.

Q: Is there also a danger that people think you are saying that having a baby is essential to womanhood?

A: There is something essential about having a baby, not having a baby, keeping it, putting it up for adoption, losing a baby, having an abortion — it's all essential, because it's all the most primal stuff we have. It's not a movie about woman's rights, or even motherhood or reproductive choices. It's about how these people who became separated coped or did not cope with it.

I always thought that Karen [Annette Bening] never grew up properly, after she was forced by her mother to give up her baby when she was, herself, a child. She never recuperated, really. That's why the first time you see her I show her moving into her mom's bed. She has an adult job and lives an adult life, and walks and talks like an adult. But deep down inside she was gutted because someone made this choice for her. We're talking about 40 years ago when it was seen more as a source of shame to be pregnant, and girls were hidden or sent away from home.

Q: How conscious were you of choreographing this dance for the audience with Karen and her grown daughter, Elizabeth [Naomi Watts] — so that we're often repelled by their actions before we understand their motivations?

A: I was aware that I was writing very aggressive on the part of Elizabeth and very passive-aggressive on the part of Karen. But their aggressive and passive-aggressive behavior are symptoms of how wounded they are. These are not psychopaths or sociopaths. They're hurt, and they are dealing with it by trying to control their surroundings. Karen controls the world by shutting it out, not dealing with it, scaring it away. Elizabeth tries to control it, literally control it, with her smarts, her beauty, her talent, her sexuality and humor.

Q: When did you start to see Bening and Watts as these characters?

A: I worked on the script for such a long time, since 1999, 10 years, so the names and faces I used as a reference changed. Three or four years ago Naomi landed in my psyche as the perfect Elizabeth. Annette: When you think of great actors in that age group who are right for Karen, she's right there. … They are great actors, able to project a lot of feeling, a lot of intelligence, a complex inner life. Sam Jackson was not someone I initially thought of for Paul. I love Sam's movies. I love how he can play these great, larger-than-life masculine characters. He has an infinite ceiling as an actor. He does roles where, if any other actor would do them, you would think, this is over-acting. He can fill the room and still be riveting. It's great, but I didn't know if this was the right key for the role. But then I looked back at the movie he did called "Changing Lanes," where he played a man with the world on his shoulders, beaten up, and I thought, "Oh, I'd forgotten about that; he can do a lot of different things."

Q: There's a sensitivity about status and class and a subtlety that don't appear frequently in our movies …

A: But some people do that here! It's just that nothing in the industry is encouraging it. Nicole Holofcener's new movie, "Please Give," does a lot of that very beautifully. It's very well observed, and the characters are dead on. So there are definitely practitioners out there, but the industry is not encouraging a movie like that, because it's not for young people, it's not a franchise, it's not a tent-pole or a sequel, whatever you want to call it.

Q: Is your ability to attract "name" actors what gives you the freedom to make movies like "Mother and Child"?

A: I'm thrilled and delighted to have these names and they're great actors; unfortunately now you also need them.

Q: Does it also help that, though, you're part of the extended moviemaking family of "The Three Amigos" — Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro?

A: Yeah, it's great to have that community. I did some work on the script Alfonso is now preparing; we are all to some extent each other's script readers. And the group includes others, including cameramen, many great ones. It's a good community to have, this community in exile.

Q: How specifically do you want to identify your movies with the L.A. neighborhoods?

A: I don't know whether it is the city that captures me or that it's just a great backdrop for interpersonal movies. I love the L.A. that's not Hollywood, not surfing, not Southern California culture; for me it's represented by Culver City, Reseda, Northridge, normal middle-class neighborhoods. Those quiet streets, often really empty in summer, when it's really hot, and there's not a pedestrian in sight — it excites my imagination just to think what's going on inside those houses. It is also a city in which people reinvent themselves, and I think Elizabeth comes back there to invent herself, to find herself. I live in Santa Monica, but I never shoot there, it looks too much like Santa Monica — the image of L.A. people have in their heads. It brings its own kind of baggage.

Q: How important was it for you to win the Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship for your first script? [It's administered by the Maryland Producers Club, which is the organizing entity for the Maryland Film Festival.]

A: It was one of the first distinctions I got for "Things You Know Just By Looking At Her." [Festival director] Jed Dietz has been a great supporter of that film and "Nine Lives" and this film.

Q: It sounds funny to ask the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but since you started out as a camera operator and now compose these really written scripts — what are your literary influences?

A: The stuff that interests me is the interpersonal stuff. The pleasures and complications of the people right next to you, the people you're joined at the hip with or to. In that sense I suppose short stories have interested me because so many short stories address this. This script took longer than my others because it was more difficult structurally and also because when I started to write it I didn't have enough experience; I had written, in my first script, a movie made up of shorter segments. After I started writing this I went back to a movie like "Nine Lives," which is essentially nine scenes. I learned a lot along the way about writing that helped me finally finish "Mother and Child." I just didn't have the writing chops when I began.

But more than movies I've come to realize that my main influence, really, is my life with my two daughters, my parents, my younger brother, my wife.

If you go

"Mother and Child" is the closing screening of the Maryland Film Festival. It shows at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Charles Theater 1, 1711 Charles St. Tickets are $25. Go to md-filmfest.org for more information.

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