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Double Burden


Matria (2023)

Ramona (Maria Vazquez) is one of those women without whom the world collapses. She’s a human whirlwind, forever making herself essential with the cooking, cleaning, washing, drying, packing, lifting, folding, fussing, scolding, usually with a cigarette and espresso in hand. But it’s not all she’s capable of; and the bitterness at how her life is working out is taking over. The hardest part is that, in her Spanish seaside town, work barely pays enough to live. She’s the head cleaner of a fish-packing plant, where she cheerfully rules her team with eagle eyes and filthy jokes. When that shift ends, most days she puts on her waterproofs and goes out on a mussel boat for 50 euros a shift. It’s hard, heavy work, but she still can’t afford to get the fan belt in her car replaced. A new hotel is opening, but housekeeping only pays 3 euros a room. But Ramona can’t stop; the money to send her daughter Estrella (Soraya Luaces) to college is almost there and Ramona is determined. What is all her hard work for, if not to get her daughter an education and a ticket to an easier life? Estrella won’t have to live scrubbing and cleaning and being taken for granted by men, not if Ramona can help it. But we all know wanting something isn’t enough.

Writer-director Álvaro Gago deftly manages to show what Ramona is up against without resorting to stereotype. Her older partner, Andrés (Santi Prego), is a sloppy drunk who doesn’t even seem to like her. At one point he whines so much about Ramona eating one of his chocolate bars she throws some money in his face, which he takes. Estrella hates him, and to get away from him has moved in with a boyfriend Ramona doesn’t like, so things are tense between them. She stops in to chat with her friend who owns the café and when a bloke interrupts to demand his drink Ramona tells her to piss in it. At work it’s more of the same. The factory is bought and the new owner tells the cleaning crew their hourly wages are being cut, back down to 5 euros an hour. It’s such an insult the cleaners all laugh in his face, but when he starts shouting about how easy they are are replace, they realize he's serious. Most go quiet, but Ramona starts shouting back. It’s a display of self-belief that these men won’t tolerate but Ramona knows her worth, and heads out the door.

But there’s no full-time work going anywhere. The best she can do is a part-time housekeeping job for a widowed professor, Xosé (E. R. Cunha), who’s so dismissive at one point he snaps at her to know her place before slamming a door in her face. The village is also so small he correctly guesses who Ramona’s grandparents were. But he can’t drive, so Ramona suddenly also becomes his chauffeur, taking him into the nearby big town for errands. There’s a wonderful shot where she waits for him on a bench, and for a few moments is absolutely still. There is nothing for her to do except close her eyes and feel the sun on her face. And in that moment something shifts. She’s worked her fingers to the bone for her whole life. What has it all been for?

The way in which Ramona figures out the answer to that question gives pleasing shape to this hardworking movie. There were a few movies at this year’s Berlinale about middle-aged women figuring out who they are separate to their familial responsibilities, of which “Matria” was both the angriest and the most fun. There are unappreciated Ramonas in every village in the world, running the vacuum cleaner and peeling the potatoes and hosing the vomit off the steps. Figuring out how to soothe their resentments would make the world a brighter, if slightly dirtier, place. But watching how Ramona decides to prioritize herself, almost for the first time in her adult life, is an absolutely wonderful thing, and this scrappy little movie is a joy.


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