Dir/scr Maria Speth. 2007. Ger. 100mins.

There's nothing beatific or saintly about motherhood in Maria Speth's minimalist new feature, Madonnas. Rita, the mother of five children by at least three fathers, gets out of jail and makes a reluctant effort to live with the kids that she has brought into the world.

As Rita, Sandra Huller (Requiem) gives a chilling performance as an angry frustrated mother who still hasn't ceased being the child of her own frustrated mother. Despite near-perfect direction of the monotonous futility of monotonous lives, with fine performances in all supporting roles, Speth has made a solid film that won't have much life at the box office outside the German-speaking countries and Belgium, where it was co-produced and partially shot.

In regions beyond that orbit, Madonnas can be expected to stay within the festival and art-house circuit, although critics will praise the sure hand of its director and the craft of its actors.

Comparisons will be made to the work of the Dardenne brothers, and that is no coincidence. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne co-produced Madonnas, and Speth's film fixes on its social milieu with the same hard clinical gaze that one expects from the Dardennes. Yet compared with this cold German story, a Dardenne film is downright heartwarming.

Madonnas opens as young Rita shows up unannounced with an African-American baby in a nameless Belgian suburb, where she tells a teenaged boy who answers the door that his policeman father (veteran Dardenne actor Olivier Gourmet) is also the father that she hasn't seen in decades.

When she tells her father that she's wanted in Germany on a theft charge, he turns her in, and she returns to Germany to finish her sentence. Her mother Isabella (Lothar) is taking care of four of Rita's children. Rita and Isabella loathe each other. Irresponsible and surly, Rita insists on living with all of her children when she's released, and borrows money from a black US soldier to rent an apartment.

Marc, another Black soldier, is her boyfriend, whom she cheats on and mistreats. Once with Rita, her children seem to stop going to school. Eventually, Marc decamps for America.

There's not much dialogue in Madonnas. When characters do speak, they repeat the same things - louder when they're angry. Even more minimal is the setting of stark corridors, grey skies, and bare rooms. The tone of the film is relentless, inching and sometimes lunging, with the fatalist certainty that character has now been destiny for Isabella and Rita, and threatens to be so once more for the helpless children.

Luisa Sappelt plays the eldest, pre-adolescent Hannah, with a rare worldliness that her mother understands. By the end, two year-old JT, Jermaine Tyrell Sanders has weariness all over his face. DP Reinhold Vorschneider's camera lingers on every shot at painful length until characters run out of things to say. Usually the children are mute witnesses to the drama.

Madonnas is more respectable than entertaining: Huller excels as a mother whom the public will despise, in a setting that she makes sure never warms up. Speth has succeeded in making unrelentingly credible the specificity of an unhappy family. You'll leave the cinema wondering how many other families are just like this one.

Production companies/backers
Pandora Film Produktion
Cineworks Film
Les Films du Fleuve
Schweizer Fernsehen

Christoph Friedl

Executive producer
Claudia Steffen

Reinhold Vorschneider

Production design
Igor Gabriel
Tim Pannen

Dietmar Kraus
Ludoo Troch
Maria Speth

Main cast
Sandra Huller
Susanna Lothar
Coleman Orlando Swinton
Luisa Sappelt
Gerti Drassl
Olivier Gourmet
Arianna Lewis
Kenneth Uhle
Elli Gotze
Jermaine Tyrell Sanders