‘Malqueridas’ Review – Saving Grace / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase


Here’s a simple, but heartbreaking truth: women become mothers in prison too. Within institutional confines, where both time and freedom are taken away from them, many have to deal with yet another type of painful separation, that from their children. Chilean filmmaker Tana Gilbert made Malqueridas with these mothers in mind. For her feature debut, which won the Grand Prize at this year’s Venice Critics’ Week, she assembled archival footage shot by the inmates themselves as well as their testimonies to create a moving meditation on loss and forced abandonment. Even if we see only one correctional facility in Chile, this story is unequivocally universal, for there are countless “malqueridas” (unloved) all over the world.

The film opens with a black screen and a crisp background noise. Supposedly amplified, the sound of touch, sucking, lips smacking, and footsteps in the distance seem to be so close to us to the point that they embrace us, but the black image remains still. Then, a baby coos and coughs while a woman whispers softly to him in Spanish. Some bodily movements brush against the screen only through a textured “whoosh” and the picture is already in our heads: a mother cuddling her newborn as her voice lightly soars over the imageless frame. In words and in tone, a lullaby emerges. In less than three minutes, Malqueridas has already shown the immense power of reality to seep through the frame, and also, that of sound to overcome the supremacy of images.

It is the mutual entanglement of image and sound in cinema that Gilbert addresses, firstly through her formal choices. They, of course, have been dictated by the material itself—as it often happens in documentary filmmaking—which are clips recorded with smartphones inside the prison. A title card at the beginning reminds us that possessing such a gadget while imprisoned is illegal. By nature, the film’s primary material is a product of a transgression, but Gilbert’s decision to build a film around these videos and testimonies exposes the violation of maternal rights. While the film does not dispute the legal reasons for any of the inmates to be kept in a correctional facility, it’s the case that more often than not, judicial systems worldwide affect people from low-income backgrounds and ethnic minorities more, especially if there is a repeated (albeit minor) offense. 

Of all the ethical questions throbbing at the heart of this original work, that of care is ever-present. Malqueridas shows care as mothering—as observed in the videos—and then by carefully arranging the footage in a dignified, but free-flowing whole. The documentary itself is an act of guardianship, placing this frail, risky footage in one artwork, the equivalent of binding photos in a family album for the ages. It’s a gesture of ongoing support. Unlike a lot of documentaries that would hurl themselves at the “exclusivity” of these images, Malqueridas firmly stands against that impulse.

The videos themselves are raw and authentic, some only lasting a minute or less. They’re low resolution, blurry, and patchy. Rather than aestheticizing the vertical format and its unprocessed look, Gilbert lets them speak for themselves as sites of both contestation and intimacy. Screens are often clouded as the camera is blocked; as a result, the images it produces are inarticulate. But once again, their imperfection exposes their significance, as they don’t need to be articulate to communicate a feeling. Even more so, what is termed an “affect image” in film theory is porous in form and content – it can be unclear, but attracts the eye beyond rational meaning. Therefore, the inarticulate doesn’t prompt deciphering. It yearns for emotions over wordy knowledge. 

They channel more a video diary than a family album because of the unique settings: made for documenting a fleeting moment, but perhaps never to be rewatched. After all, every one of the mothers is one cell search away from losing every material remnant of her young child. Such precarity imbues the footage with an impending sense of loss and makes us look anew at the smartphone as a tool for salvation. For the mothers in this Chilean prison, it is a lifeline, but it’s even more important when it becomes a portable camera and a viewing device. In this way, the smartphone reminds one of the first film cameras, which were exactly that, both caption and projection machines at once. Maybe there is salvation in cinema, too, if it acknowledges its debt to the smartphone, rather than blaming it for its demise. 

“Maybe there is salvation in cinema, too, if it acknowledges its debt to the smartphone, rather than blaming it for its demise.”

Stories of birth, rearing, and giving up a child flood the images, but they come from beyond. Formally, what this means is that a narrator (Karina Sánchez) retells the women’s actual testimonies over the clips, photos, and slideshows that make up the 73-minute runtime of Malqueridas. All the words seem to weigh in the past tense, even if the verbs are in the present tense as Sánchez narrates (and therefore, performs) with an undertone of irreparable nostalgia. Nouns, adjectives, even pronouns (“us”!) seem to refer to a past that is forever destined to remain unprocessed. While the camera is a hidden eye, a solitary gaze upon the secret world populated only with a mother and her baby, the words cut right through that illusion. But there might also be something salubrious about the hard facts of life, and that is the necessary context. Without it, these images would be vagrant and prone to appropriation.

Malqueridas cannot grant any freedoms, but its inclusive form radiates love and compassion. In prison, the women find solace in each other; they go from being mothers together to being childless mothers together. In one particular scene, we see them putting on makeup, dressing up, taking photos of each other, and, as a whole, lifting each other. The sense of kinship is so palpable here, that, even if it cannot compensate for being away from your loved ones, the support of other women can dress the wounds, when nothing in the world will heal them. 

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