Review by Alana Odegard.
Mamma Gógó is a film I have been looking forward to seeing for a long time, partly because I had the opportunity to briefly stop by the film set while it was being shot and since then I’ve been curious to see how it would look on screen.
My interest in it also stems back to 2009, when I was fortunate enough to attend the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the team promoting Academy Award nominated Icelandic director Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s documentary A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism (original title: Sólskinsdrengurinn, or “The Sunshine Boy”).
It was an exciting experience for many reasons, but mostly because it was the first time I had attended a film festival as an “insider” rather than a spectator.
The festival schedule was hectic as we ran around from venue to venue so the director and producers could pose for photos, attend business meetings, industry parties and several press interviews.
I spent most of the time pinching myself and trying not to fall behind, all the while attempting to take in as much of what was going on around me at any given moment as possible. I found the best way to do this was to become a “fly on the wall”.
Over the course of a few days I noticed that sooner or later, the topic of Fridriksson’s next project would arise with whomever he was talking to.
It was at this moment that Fridriksson would reach into his pocket and pull out a small photograph of his mother, the person on whom the title character Mamma Gógó is based.
“That’s what I’m working on next,” he would say with a hint of pride in his voice and smile on his face.
Above all, Mamma Gógó certainly does feel like a touching tribute to Fridriksson’s mother, a much-loved and influential person in his life based on what we see in the film.
I suppose the film is a biopic of sorts, as at the center of the film is a version of Fridrik himself, a character billed as “The Director” in the credits, set around the time his film Children of Nature (Börn Náttúrunnar) was released in Icelandic theaters.
The film traces The Director’s financial troubles as a result of having invested everything he had in the film (Children of Nature) only for him to realize that his target audience for the film was too old; they were either dead or had one foot in the grave.
Actor Hilmir Snaer Gudnason is cast as the lead and as usual, he does not disappoint with his portrayal of The Director, who is also a son, father and husband dealing with the strains of family, love and money.
What I found to be particularly interesting were the scenes depicting the meetings between The Director and the Icelandic Prime Minister (an actor who looks an awful lot like Davíd Oddsson, the PM of that time), where he would essentially ask for financial favors.
Living in a post-economic-crash world, seeing this type of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing doesn’t sit very well and it’s hard not to roll your eyes, but as we are all now privy to, in a country as small as Iceland (especially pre-crash), appealing to the PM to make a phone call in an effort to help settle your personal finances is not too far fetched.
But bank statements and corrupt officials aren’t the focus of the film, rather Mamma Gógó is more about the title character Gógó, The Director’s aging mother who we see progressing through the stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
The sentimentality and profundity of this film sneaks up on you, and I think it has something to do with the humor that the film captures so brilliantly. Sometimes life gets outrageous or sad enough that all there’s left to do is laugh. As is also the case with life and this film, in one moment you’re laughing and at the next you’re brought to tears.
There is one scene in particular that features The Director driving his mother, Gógó, from her countryside nursing home to his house in the city for Christmas dinner.
The scene and dialogue appear to be simple enough on the surface (a story about how as a child he had accidentally swallowed the almond hidden in the Christmas rice pudding), but as a result of the way the lines are delivered, the music, in addition to how the light is reflected in the darkness, the connection between mother and son and the outside pressures of their situation and her deteriorating health, the scene becomes weighted with emotion and is truly beautiful.
Kristbjörg Kjeld delivers a superb performance as Gógó and manages to fully capture the humor, frustration and fear of someone who is essentially losing parts of herself to Alzheimer’s.
Gunnar Eyjólfsson, who plays Gógó’s late husband, visits her in apparitions that add an interesting element of mysticism to the film.
There is layer upon layer in Mamma Gógó, including references and footage of Fridriksson’s past films which create a fascinating intertextuality within the film.
But perhaps what is most notable is the inclusion of the black and white footage from scenes of the 1962 film 79 af stödinni which also featured Kjeld and Eyjólfsson together as a couple.
(It was, in fact, Kjeld’s debut film and her character’s name was Gógó. One thing is for sure, Kjeld is just as stunning now as she was all those years ago).
This footage of her past seems to serve both as Mamma Gógó’s flashbacks of her most treasured memories as well as insight into her present and future, as they depict the very real time and place she increasingly travels to in her mind as her disease progresses.
On a personal note, I watched helplessly as my late grandfather disappeared into Alzheimer’s and as anyone who has had a relative affected by the disease will know, it is excruciatingly difficult not only for the person diagnosed, but for his or her loved ones as well.
I can only hope that just like Gógó, while being taken from our world he was visiting another filled with eternal youth and an everlasting journey.
And so it is through his exploration of the themes of love, commitment, family, and life in general that Fridriksson’s film ends up not only paying homage to his mother, but to anyone who has had to say goodbye.
The film is available on DVD with English subtitles in webstores such as nammi.is.
Alana Odegard – [email protected]
Ready and willing to watch anything that comes her way, Alana has an unquenchable thirst for the motion picture art form. Alana studied film as part of her BA degree and as the story so often goes, she is tirelessly trying to find ways to surround herself with the enchanting world of film. She hopes this passion will one day spill over from the realm of pastime to likewise envelop that of fulltime day-job as well.