Maura Delpero reveals the beauty of imperfect motherhood with ‘Maternal’

When I turned thirty everything changed for me. My boyfriend of three years was not ready to make the kind of commitment I desired and was definitely not ready to help make me a mother. My body told me, “It’s time, you are ready for motherhood,” and my circumstances were telling me, “No it’s not time to be a mother.” What was so strange was that I had no desire to be a mother until that age. Then I was like, “Oh, this is the biological clock thing.” But this clock was almost like a wake up call, like it’s time to end your twenty something mentality that I was going to live forever, and there was no rush into commitment, adulthood and motherhood.

So I broke up with my boyfriend, I got my own apartment, and I left my life open for commitment. Then a year later, boyfriendless, I no longer had that desire to be a mother, and I was okay having that open space. When I spoke with Maura Delpero at the Chicago International Film Festival about her film “Maternal” (“Hogar” is the spanish title) we talked about this weird moment when women feel like it’s time to be a mother. We also discussed all the complexities and contradictions that motherhood represents. I love that Maura made this film, and I think it should be required viewing for all women whose biological clocks are ticking.

“Maternal” takes us through Sister Paola’s journey, a young nun coming from Italy to Argentina to take her vows at a convent that is a home for unwed teenage mothers, called a hogar. Her interactions with the girls, specifically Lu and Fatima, lead to her discovering her longing for having her own children. “Maternal” is currently in the festival circuit, US release to be announced.

REBECCA MARTIN: Can you start by sharing your process of creating “Maternal.”

MAURA DELPERO: It was very, very long. In the beginning, it started with my personal questions about maternity, which gave me contradictory feelings, with doubts, troubles and fears. Then I did a lot of interviews with women, mothers and pregnant women. And I realized it was not just personal, it was universal. There are many women who feel contradictory about this revolutionary event. We were like, ‘Okay, let’s go deep into it. We always talk about maternity, and the idea that everyone who has children is happy. It’s right of passage, but it’s not like that.’

MARTIN: No, it’s not.

DELPERO: I think overall in today’s society, women fear to confess their maternal troubles, because of the expectation that they are always to be happy. I was attracted to those maternities that were not easy in itself. I’m a high school teacher, in my class I had a teenager, and I noticed she was pregnant. I thought, “what is happening to her?” Being a teenager is very intense, especially when becoming a mother. And so I live between Argentina and Italy, and through my research, I found there are a lot of centers for teenage mothers called hogars. I was fascinated that there were centers where they all lived together, and I asked to work in these places. I gave cinema workshops for the teen moms. 

Maura Delpero with Lidiya Liberman (Sister Paola) on “Maternal” set

MARTIN: So you taught film, that’s great!

DELPERO: Yes, cinema workshops. It was a beautiful experience doing this with the young mothers because it was a moment of entertainment. Because being a mother, it’s so-

MARTIN: Time consuming.

DELPERO: Yes. Being a mother is very demanding, and doing the workshop gave them a moment to be just teenagers.

MARTIN: That’s great.

DELPERO: And it was my excuse to be there and to absorb their world. So I took a lot of notes, and then I wrote the script, which is completely fictional, but it was really absorbing the world that I was serving and feeling. It’s interesting because the characters are completely invented, but I was in charge of casting and I chose Lu/Luciana (Agustina Malale), the blonde one. She completely found herself in this role. 

I worked in several hogars, and it was there where the film turned itself around. There I saw a young nun hugging a little baby. My gaze was captivated on this image, and I thought, ‘Is something happening to her?’ And then I realized something was happening to her. So in a way, in my writing, I was being led by this image of this nun hugging this baby. 

Sister Paola

MARTIN: I love that. 

DELPERO: In the beginning, I thought the only contradiction was teenage motherhood. Then I understood that the big contradiction was this nun who had the desire for motherhood.

MARTIN: Sister Paola (Lidiya Liberman), what an amazing performance. I also loved Fatima (Denise Carrizo), she was such a sweet character, and her friendship with Luciana was just really interesting to me. I saw myself in the Fatima character.

DELPERO: Me as well.

MARTIN: Because I’ve had friends like that, where I love them, and they are so much fun, yet I feel so different from them, but I always want to be with them and want to support them. I really appreciate that relationship. I thought that was great. Especially because they are doing it together, the motherhood thing. 

Fatima and Luciana

DELPERO: It’s interesting what you said because it really confirms that the relationship translated. It was inspired by one of my friendships growing up. I think it’s archetypical in a way, teenager friendships, but it’s also like love. Looking at the other one, it’s somewhat complimentary. But they are so opposite. They love and they hate one another, and in their particular case, they also are the only family they have. They are the only ones that know what it’s like to be a teenage mother. Outside of the hogar walls, they do not have the emotional support. They don’t have parents or family to go to, which make their strong teenage friendship is even stronger.

It’s also the reason why they cannot be free from one another. Fatima, in a way, suffers from Lu’s personality. But in the end, she frees herself. The one that could not really help her was the young sister who gives her more trust. She can accept a little more, because this sister changes her way of seeing her own maternity, from negative to positive. This is confirmed by this child she has, who is the only male figure in the film.

MARTIN: Yeah, I wanted to talk about that, there are practically no men in the film, and I appreciated that with the subject matter. 

DELPERO: The film is completely inspired by these teenage women, and having so many women shown onscreen was important to me, because of the subject. There are so many films where there are barely any women. 

MARTIN: It’s so beautiful. One of my favorite scenes was when they have the dance party. I love that because they’re like, “We’re going to keep the nuns out,” and they hold the door closed with a chair. They’re like, “We want to be free and be teenagers again.” That was a very freeing scene. 

Teenage mothers dancing in “Maternal”

I wanted to talk about the little girl, Nina. Where did you find her? She just lights up the screen. 

DELPERO: Working with Nina [Isabella Cilia] was such a critical process, because no one wanted me to choose her for the role. She was four years old. And they’re right to be worried, she was very young. Being four, she does what she wants. They were like, “We already have a difficult set, we don’t have a lot of time.” They thought an older girl would be easier to work with. But when I met Nina, I fell in love with her. And that was it.

MARTIN: I did too, and you get it why Sister Paola loves her so much. She just has this connection with her, and so do we. 

Sister Paola and Nina

DELPERO: I really needed her, I needed someone who could create a strong connection for Sister Paola, so we could empathize with her, and understand why she is breaking her vows in order to protect this little girl. I thought if I fall in love, others will fall in love, and Sister Paola will fall in love. You can see and believe this. It was a big deal for me as a script writer. I had to step back to understand that things were difficult for her.

MARTIN: I feel Nina was the heart of the film. Was that your intention?

DELPERO: Yes, completely. The set was influenced by her presence. No matter what the interests were of the professional actors, the child came first. In a way it was difficult because we had to build the sets around her. But I did it for her. 

MARTIN: I was curious about your connection with religion, because you kind of touched on it in the beginning of our interview, in regards to the nun holding the baby, and the contradiction and the complexity of that. It’s always interesting to me about how religion looks at motherhood with having children or abortion. I felt the nuns were understanding of the mothers, but there was like this invisible wall between them. Sister Paola seemed to be the only one who could connect on a human level, you know?

Nuns in “Maternal”

DELPERO: The Reverend Mother, who is very wise, she understands everything. When Sister Paola is going down a wrong path, she doesn’t punish her, she guides her. She tells everyone they will have their votes on what to do with Sister Paola, because it’s their intention to keep her. In a way I feel she knows that this is a big difficulty for a nun, and she tries to do what she can to help her with this new vocation. It’s hard to find younger women becoming nuns these days, like young men taking the vocation as priests. They have to understand the vocation.

All of the nuns I spoke to said it’s a calling, a spiritual calling. They feel it. But to me, it’s a mystery. So I looked for an actor who could embody the mystery for Sister Paola. I think Sister Paola is somebody who can demonstrate unconditional love, more like a relationship with a man or the earth. Very imperfect, but unconditional. With nuns, there is this unconditional love for Christ, but it is not of this earth. In the end, Sister Paola finds that she has an unconditional love for a child. 

MARTIN: Well said.

Fatima and Sister Paola

DELPERO: In a way, I always think she goes from Italy to Argentina [where the film takes place] for a honeymoon with her Christ. She finds out that this man she’s marrying is not sharing the feeling she’s feeling. I don’t think she’s even annoyed. It’s like she has a big, big, crush, and this is a theme of the film. It’s a question of how this institution clashes with one’s personal desires by telling nuns that they can’t have any children. This is what I spoke about with a nun who is not a nun anymore. 

MARTIN: I thought that was interesting because I feel when you get to a certain age, your biological clock goes off, and you feel the desire to be a mother. That happened to me when I turned 30. I wasn’t going to, but my body was telling me it was time to have children. Now I’m 36, and I don’t feel that way anymore. But it’s fascinating to me that moment when your body is telling you to produce. 

DELPERO: I told my team that the nun had to be around thirty because that is when women, most women, feel the need to have children. And here she is surrounded by babies and children.

MARTIN: And Nina-

DELPERO: It’s a biological thing.

MARTIN: Can we talk about that ending, when Sister Paola comes back with Nina and is confronted by Lu when she’s headed to the cab?

DELPERO: It’s strong for Lu and it’s strong for Sister Paola. And when Sister Paola opens the door, there’s a look.

MARTIN: You can just see it. 

DELPERO: It’s meant to be happy. The lost sheep has come back. I think it’s a big moment. Earlier in the film, when Lu goes to the window to see Nina, in the kindergarten class, Nina just looks at her without any expression. This destroyed Lu.

MARTIN: Yeah, that was insane.

Luciana, Sister Paola, and Fatima

DELPERO: The emotions overwhelmed her. At that moment, it changed her. Before she was more like a sister to Nina, because she was a child herself. I think then Lu understands what it means to have a child. So when she sees Sister Paola, she’s like a lion. 

MARTIN: She’s like a mother lion.

DELPERO: For the first time, we don’t know if Lu’s able to, but she’s willing to fight for her. Like, ‘Okay, I’m the mother, and she’s the child.’ I think Sister Paola, in a way, has this crazy moment as a woman. At that point, she is an anxious woman.

MARTIN: And she realizes it’s not right to take Nina.

DELPERO: It’s at the point when Nina asks about her mother. She says, “where’s mom?’ It’s such a defining moment for her. She could take Nina to Africa or China, but it’s still not her child. In a way it’s her conscious saying she must return Nina to Lu, because she is not my child. I love when Lu and Sister Paola meet again. When you see the two women at the beginning, they seem to come from different planets. Sister Paola is all covered and more reserved. Lu dresses up and she goes out. And at the end the two are similar. Both women have a similar ambition. They follow their desires. Lu follows her boyfriend and Sister Paola fills her love with Nina. So they were similar at the end.  

MARTIN: How was that for you? I know this came from a place of passion. What was your initial attraction to the idea of motherhood? Are you a mother as well?

Fatima

DELPERO: Not now, but maybe down the road. I tackled this idea of maternity because I was not sure how I felt about it, so I worked it through my art. It seemed like everyone who was doing this film was pregnant or became pregnant. One of the actresses’ became pregnant after shooting. 

MARTIN: To me, the film felt like a personal piece. I feel art is a great way to work through things. It is therapeutic in a sense, to deal with those things that you can’t quite figure out in your head. You just have to figure it out in a creative way. I respected that. 

DELPERO: The film was a metaphor for giving birth. I felt from the beginning that this was something I had to do. 

Maura Delpero at Filmmakers Afternoon Tea – 63rd BFI London Film Festival

MARTIN: What was something you were trying to leave with people in this film?

DELPERO: I really wanted to have these women who were imperfect, and imperfect mothers. And you always hear, ‘She’s not a good mother’, and ‘She’s a good mother’. I think women feel a lot of pressure about that, and some women don’t have children because they feel this pressure. So it’s like a big question. I wanted to have women who could just be themselves. If you’re a teenager, of course you want to go out and dance. You want to have sex and you want to have fun.

Then society tells you that when you are a mother, now you have to be perfect, and we feel all alone in this. It’s like a depression, where you’re afraid to ask for help. In a way, I was like, ‘Let’s talk about this thing that happens more to women than to men.’ For example, older teenagers are alone because the fathers are not there. How can a teenager of 18 face the responsibility of raising a child? Sometimes the father comes back years later because they say the baby has their name. And they are like, ‘Okay, where were you when I needed you?’

MARTIN: What are your thoughts about the landscape of female filmmakers? Do you see change?

DELPERO: I really hope there will be more female directors, because there are feelings that are not so represented and there will be more variety in stories. Because we have so many stories told by men. 

“Maternal” cast with Maura Delpero at Locarno Film Festival 2019

MARTIN: Films like yours I feel are so important to be seen. And for that, I want to thank you for making this film. 

DELPERO: You have to believe in society when you’re making a film. There were so many years where women didn’t even have money in their hands. It’s important we see women go out there and doing it, so women have the confidence to pursue filmmaking and their dreams.

MARTIN: Well you’re doing it and thank you.

“Maternal” clip

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