El Paraiso (2024) Movie Review: The parent-child relationship has been quintessential cinematic fodder for decades. Filmmakers have kept digging into it, but rarely have they engaged with the messy, unwieldy duality and thrusting complexity hidden and entrenched within it. To do that requires honesty that isn’t afraid to acknowledge the uncomfortable tight spots lodged underneath the façade of affection and emotional ties. When and how does a mother-son relationship hurtle into becoming something that threatens to cut off almost every other relationship? What are the niggling insecurities and the throbbing loneliness that mask that suffocating bid for possessiveness? In “El Paraiso,” director Enrico Maria Artale demonstrates an abundant audacity by being willing to plunge into a host of such bracing, prickly questions.
When the film opens in a bar in a town close to Rome, we are hurled into the intimacy between the forty-year-old Julio (Edoardo Pesce) and his mother (Margarita Rosa de Francisco) as they dance together. When someone else asks Julio if he can steal his mother for a dance, Julio seems displeased at the momentary loss of closeness. This is a brief, vital flicker of expression that allows us to see how Julio perceives his intensely coiled together relationship with his mother. It quickly registers as an unusual equation where the two are entwined in a bond neither can see themselves out of.
Severing oneself from it is reflected on by both as something utterly unimaginable, although Julio does come to recognize the demands his mother makes and her insistence on hovering over and maneuvering every aspect of his life. Julio’s sense of autonomy is further incapacitated by his over-reliance on a livelihood that is intrinsically linked to his mother’s goodwill and the connection she has forged. The duo work for a local drug dealer, looking after mules passing through from Colombia, which is where the mother originally is from. Julio, however, has never been there.
The dynamics between the two are ruptured by the arrival of Ines (Maria del Rosario). As Julio pursues an interest in Ines, vying for her attention, the mother finds herself confronted with the unsettling possibility of losing control over him. Francisco vividly and crushingly captures the mother’s fear of witnessing her son being wrenched away. She depends on him as forcefully as it takes for her self-preservation to hold its firm, still center. She struggles to come to terms with her son’s perceptible curiosity in another person and doesn’t hide her resentment and suspicion of Ines for his shift in focus. For all her charisma, the mother crumples when her son seems to be looking elsewhere and not her way.
Julio is deeply aware he cannot have a sustained romantic relationship, knowing how it directly impinges on his mother’s mental state, which is often perched on frayed nerves. He goes through flings that barely leave him with any emotional fulfillment and heads back home to continue living with his mother, who commands and shadows all the nitty-gritty of his private life. Observing Julio’s attraction towards Ines, she makes her annoyance evident.
She enjoys the short sailing expeditions with her son, but when Ines comes into the picture, she is thrown into unease. The scenes where the three are present together are among the film’s best, roiling with undercurrents as Artale subtly etches the myriad shades in the relationships colliding with each other, chafing for more visibility and attention. There’s friction and tension that shoot through the cracks in every exchange underneath the gauze of niceties.
Soon even the pleasantries are skipped. When Artale lets the explosion rip through in a confrontational scene where the mother and son go at each other with their misgivings and fury, it is stupendously acted, bursting with raw, undisguised emotion bobbing up from the very pits of vulnerability. Mean, hurtful words are tossed, but the persistent impression is that of a confession of how much one needs the other to sustain her.
Francisco delivers such a barnstorming performance the film fumbles to grip you when she is absent, despite Pesce confidently steering it through a series of extraordinarily soul-baring scenes. Pesce’s complete immersion in his characters’ psyche once he receives a life-resetting jolt complements and takes further the filmmaker’s daring in trusting his actors with handling the most naked, revealing emotions. “El Paraiso” is especially stunning in its uncompromising devotion to not cutting away from psychologically and emotionally acute needlepoint-like moments, conceding gradual privacy and dignity for its characters to grow and forge selfhood through painful rites and realizations.