Gibbs Chapman’s film Mother Mortar, Father Pestle is an anti-theological parable and comedy of ideas, in which nine characters with names like The Official and The Outsider are seen in interlocking fragments of narrative. We gradually get to know the homeless man whose lack of social finesse is ruining his relationship with his prostitute girlfriend, the slimy landlord who is evicting this girlfriend, the devout nun who closes her eyes to life and thinks of herself as a literal bride of Christ, the atheist activist who tries to strong-arm people into humanism, and other benighted characters, all of them struggling through a twilight of confusion, mistakes, and missed opportunities. An unexplained natural disaster has dimmed the sun and plunged the world into a literal twilight as well. The characters’ stories connect up in a few places, but in many others they remain separate through the film. Pervasive disconnection is very much the point.
The film’s inter-titles are wittily visualized as part of a heavily redacted document from the State Department. These titles, like the film’s dialog, are in a poetically tinged, world weary style reminiscent of the more literary noir films. We are introduced to the prostitute with this text: “The Walking Girl was one to learn by doing and had become an older, pragmatic tender flower.” The film contains little dramatic action, and consists largely of talk: chatter which is a smartly written, sharply observed portrayal of the thoughts of less-than-smart people. Much of the talk in the film has the rambling, throwaway tone of late night bar sermons, and like the drunk’s monolog, much of it consists of half-baked theological or existential musings. The characters attempt to assert a viable point of view in light of their helplessness before fate. The whistling in the dark philosophizing tone of the film recalls Don DeLillo novels such as White Noise. Chapman has a marvelous directorial flair for extracting understated line readings from his actors. Their quiet yet clear vocal style allows the off-handed poetry of the dialog to emerge full force, in lines like “I’d say thanks for dropping by, but I wouldn’t mean it.” In many scenes, the ambient sound includes a radio or TV, with a commenter putting forth his expert analysis of current events. This adds to the sense of a world where the constant production of angles, of points of view, forms an ambient layer of intellectual noise.
The Secularist is an evangelical atheist, who pursues a militant agenda against the church. But when he finds a dying man in the hallway of his building, he runs upstairs to call his girlfriend for theological advice, rather than helping the man. It is typical of the film’s mordent humor that the characters are more bent on solving philosophical problems than practical ones. One of the characters, The Liaison, is an operative in a crooked political fundraising scheme. The Liaison’s bosses turn him into a fall guy and force him into prison to protect themselves, but the plot in Mother Mortar seems to exist mainly to inject a tone of conspiratorial cynicism into the film. Mother Mortar isn’t about the story, it’s about delineating a spiritual condition, where the constant buying and selling of philosophies is a desperate strategy to stave off the random violence of the universe. The film’s symbolic names for the characters emphasize their role as emblems of different world-views, rather than as individuals. The film’s structuralism, in which the inter-titles outline the mathematical, fugue-like intertwining of the characters, underscores the overdetermined nature of this world. Its a game that’s been fixed from the start.
In one of the film’s hilarious, overtly satirical set pieces, a group of men are waiting in a generic “waiting room,” whether for a doctor or some other kind of service is not made clear. One inebriated man gets so fed up he presses all the buttons on the intercom, arguing with random recorded voice prompts from a kind of hellish, beaurocratic phone system. It’s slapstick Sartre.
Near the film’s end, the Theologian reads Bertrand Russell’s passionate declaration of his atheism, and Russell seems to speak for the filmmaker, who clearly sides with the atheists of the film. The film’s ending is a broadly satirical scene of the deities from all world religions passing judgement on the recently deceased Landlord. The biting wit of this scene gleefully skewers the absurdity of the religious worldview. But it is a measure of Chapman’s even-handed and broad view that he makes the Theologian one of the more likable characters in the film, and doesn’t shy away from portraying the foibles and weaknesses of the Secularist.
Mother Mortar is unusual among low budget art films for being shot in gorgeous 35mm black and white, and the picture and sound are beautiful throughout. The film’s unique tone is well captured in music by Brain Burman and Former Self Shadows. The sheer visual pleasure and sensuality of the film’s photography almost functions as an implied rebuke to the characters; they live in a world of such rich visual splendor, but they can’t see beyond their own noses. With Mother Mortar, Father Pestle Gibbs Chapman vigorously skewers every possible intellectual approach to living in what he calls “an indifferent universe.” In doing so with humor and a large dose of compassion, the film makes an impassioned plea for tolerance and understanding, a plea all the more effective for being in the film’s structure rather than its rhetoric.