The post-birth void
by Vittoria Scarpa
04/05/2012 - The difficulties faced by a new mother, the tiredness, the alienation, the isolation. A sadness that becomes an illness and can turn one of the greatest events of one’s life – the birth of a child – into a nightmare. Post-natal depression is a delicate subject, a burning issue, long considered taboo. Cinema doesn’t see it that way and is talking about it: Cristina Comencini explored it in Quando la notte [trailer], in competition at the latest Venice Film Festival, it is explored by a film which is in cinemas currently, Fabrizio Cattani’s Maternity Blues [trailer], also at the Lido. And it is explored in Vacuum [trailer, film focus], first feature by Turin-born Giorgio Cugno, screened in competition at the 13th Lecce Festival of European Cinema, where it received much praise and won, apart from the Cineuropa Award, the Jury’s Special Prize, the FIPRESCI Award and the €5000 prize.
Right from the very first images it is evident that Vacuum is not an easy, watered-down or conciliatory account of motherhood. The viewer is thrown into a delivery ward, amongst agonizing screams, panting, and close-ups of a young woman, Arianna (Simonetta Ainardi), who is about to give birth to her son, immersed in surreal darkness, in which the doctors’ reassuring voices fail to ease the brutality of that instant. The scene culminates in a fainting.
In the following sequences, we see the rituals all new parents go through: visits to the hospital, grandparents taking pictures, friends cracking jokes, comments about similarities, and then posing, laughing, opening presents, thanking and smiling again. Six months later, every-day life is different: it consists of crying, sleepless nights, relays between work and home, t-shirts which get soaked by milk coming out of your breasts, even when you’re at work, all marked by the droning, almost hypnotic sound of the breast pump, and by the child’s moaning and softer breathing, rendered carefully and extremely naturally.
What is really striking about this film is precisely this great accuracy with which some of the even most intimate details of motherhood are represented. This is the result of the 50 interviews which the 32-year-old carried out in the course of about a year, with mothers and relatives who experienced the drama of post-natal depression in more or less direct ways. And the directing style accurately captures details and nuances: the camera is glued to the protagonist, to her son, it captures their small gestures, their looks of love, but also the tiredness, the vacuum which gradually seeps into the mother’s gaze, the apathy which sets in and which the loving husband Milo, played by the director himself, fails to curb.
Arianna often finds herself alone. Milo is forced to be away for weeks at a time in order to keep his temporary job. No holidays, there is no money. No fun, just nappies, breast pump, feedings and the house walls which close in on her more and more. The narrative is kept delicately balanced on a tightrope, on the worst that could happen and which maybe happens. It goes to suggest that a moment of blindness is possible, in those conditions, at any moment, not pre-announced by any particularly alarming signal. What is alarming however is a figure given by the National Observatory of Women’s Health: in Italy, each year 16% of new mothers experience post-natal depression.
Vacuum was shot in a month and a half, in Turin, with a budget of barely €10,000, without any public contributions. The film is awaiting distribution.