A fraught mother-daughter drama that understands the impulse to furiously push someone away when all you want is for them to hold you closer, the melancholy of Mal Viver is distilled through a single haunting question — is it scarier to spend a lifetime trying not to turn into our parents? Or to confront the reality that we’ll one day have to carry on with life without them?
Piedad (Anabela Moreira) is lonely. She displays an obsessive attachment to her dog, a replacement for the last pet that died. Filling the void inside her is a harder task. When her estranged daughter, Salome (Madalena Almeida), reappears at the remote family hotel she’s been looking after, it’s not a reunion punctuated by awkward silences. They have a lot to say to each other, and none of it (couched in blunt, rapid-fire bursts) is pleasant. Piedad defaults to a universal parental language — criticism. Salome responds with a prepared, well-rehearsed list of all her mother’s flaws. For both, the memory of hurt overpowers the ache for affection. It’s easier to wallow than to forgive.
Writer-director João Canijo points to the cyclical nature of parental shame and guilt by illustrating how the same patterns have played out with Piedad and her mother Sara (Rita Blanco). When you look at your children, he asks, are you disappointed by their failures? Or that they reflect all the ways you’ve failed as a parent? Motherhood is depicted as an affliction, an ache that begins with childbirth and never fully heals.
Too empty to be a real hotel, too cold to be a real home, the space becomes a limbo that no one could possibly hope to feel a sense of belonging to. Eavesdropping becomes a returning motif, with the characters either overhearing fragments of speech that will shatter them, or being made to feel so unwelcome at other times, they can’t bring themselves to join the conversation now. A recurring shot frames the women through the shutters of the dining room, mimicking prisoners trapped behind bars. Piedad cuts a solitary figure in her room. Even when the common areas are warmly lit, they’re suffused with a sense of overwhelming loneliness. Canijo’s camera spends enough time with one woman that when another enters the frame, it sparks hope that a tenuous connection between them will finally form, only for those hopes to be dashed. Despite the near-constant presence of these women, it’s the absence of a man that casts a shadow over a film. Salome’s father has just died, adding another painful dimension to her relationship with Piedad.
At a sedately paced two hours and seven minutes, Mal Viver runs the risk of sinking us into the same pool of stagnation and melancholy that Piedad feels. Long passages of silent inactivity deflate narrative and emotional momentum. Between the resentments that are revealed and the hurts that are concealed, however, Canijo constructs a thoughtful, wrenching monument to the unique misery of mother-daughter love, and loss.