For his documentary, Philippe Costantini takes us inside the House of Santo António in Lisbon, an institution designed to shelter and educate young single mothers in the hope of giving them and their children a better chance in life. Narrated through the interviews with the House staff as well as the teenage mothers, we are given open access to the hopes and fears of these young women faced with overwhelming responsibilities.
The House of Santo António is a religious institution – the rules are strict and day after day the mothers must follow a set routine. The staff makes daily reports on the mothers’ behaviour and their progress towards their so-called ‘life project’. The girls living in the House are on average 14-years-old, with some in their early 20s. Torn between their childhood and the prospect of adulthood, the girls often clash with the strong controlling body of the older women running the institution – rivalry and tensions are inevitable. Still, despite the girls coming from different backgrounds, there is a common denominator: all of them share stories of abuse and rejection, shattered dreams and aspirations. Motherhood was more often than not an unplanned incident. The greatest challenge for the staff is therefore to teach these young women not only self-respect, but also to love a child who often wasn’t their choice in the first place.
House of Mothers is a pretty harrowing documentary which takes on an observational approach. The camera is pretty much a window into the lives on those living inside the institution – we watch and draw our conclusions rather than being fed information. The strict set of rules comes across as rather overbearing at times – often we can read the despair and anger in the young mother’s eyes. It’s an unstable balance between the senior staff – often coming with a baggage of preconceptions regarding the girls – and the young mothers – still struggling to come to terms with their responsibilities. How do you teach a child to care for a child? If, on one hand, we think some of the girls may be treated too harshly, on the other, we also witness some uplifting moments. One of the most affecting scenes involves young-mother Sofia talking with staff-member Sònia – when Sofia breaks down saying she cannot cope with the fear of not being able to give her daughter a good life, Sònia tells her that fear is something every mother feels every day of their lives. Sofia must learn to live with it.
An emotional and affecting documentary, House of Mothers could have been a great insight but fails to involve us as much as we hoped. Often we feel there is a barrier between the viewer and the young mothers housed in the institution – although we see them speaking in front of the camera there is a sense that we never break past the surface of who these girls are. The documentary consciously takes a step back to observe from a distance. Ultimately, however, this results in giving the staff and the girls an equality that doesn’t match real life – the girls being constantly under close scrutiny from the older women. A better option would have been to give voice to the girls rather than the staff.
House of Mothers screened at the Caminhos Film Festival, the only Portugal-based festival dedicated to celebrate Portuguese Cinema. For more information about the festival and contacts, please go to https://filmfreeway.com/festival/caminhos