A virtuosic performance from Kiti Mánver is just the beginning of what Mamacruz’s glimpse at a Spanish woman’s third-quarter life crisis has to offer. A grandmother’s sexual (re)awakening in a tight Catholic community puts all the symbolic dominoes in play, and filmmaker Patricia Ortega knocks them down with sweet charm, unflinching sensuality and touching honesty. A vibrant and lovely character study, Mamacruz makes the most of its horny matriarch.
The life encasing Cruz (or Mamacruz, to her granddaughter) is a familiar cage. Her husband Eduardo (Pepe Quero) is clueless, a tired and sloppy old-timer whose silence sits beneath a haircut stolen from The Three Stooges. She stifles herself in a corset, long accustomed to bottling herself up for the expectations of someone who’s now become a platonic couch potato. Her life is routine, and depicted with care—even if her life indoors and in church pews is restrictive, golden-lit comfort makes it feel safe. She stays at home, mostly, leaving to go to Mass or mend fabric for the church. She FaceTimes her daughter, who left her preteen daughter with Cruz to follow her professional passions, but not as often as she’d like.
This iPad is where the trouble begins. Technology and the elderly: A recipe for disaster. Or porn, which is what Cruz accidentally clicks on when trying to surf a seemingly innocuous corner of the web.
Just glimpsing one hard, sweaty good time is all it takes to set her libido back in motion—a dire condition for a woman weathering not only bed death but deep religious repression. The charming, lustful interludes that follow are sweetly funny and filled with truly passionate cinematography. The nunsploitation and teen sex comedy versions of this story might be more salacious or gut-busting, but Ortega’s carefully observed eroticism evokes the sexual needs of someone with experience—someone who knows what they like, and why they like it. We all know that Cruz is going to be hot for Jesus (just look at him!), but Ortega slides her camera over his statues like a nuru massage. We feel Cruz’s eyes drip down the male form, extending past the lithe savior to appreciating even Eduardo’s frumpy curves and hairy nipples.
This desire—really, this entire role—could easily be overplayed, played purely for laughs, or be overwhelmed by the dominant premise. But Mánver is perfect, embodying this moving, endearing slice-of-life with the gravity of a veteran performer and the lightness of an artist embracing a new medium. She’s hesitant, grouchy, sneaky, coy, mournful—the script boldly fills her character out, but Mánver’s dynamic performance erases any possible staginess. She touches her lips, sucks in her gut and brushes out her hair with girlish longing. She tiptoes around the city’s gossiping cliques like a kid with a juicy secret. (Sex, ever heard of it?) She snaps and overbears, exasperated by where her own life ended up. And every step of the way, it’s impossible not to think of the future that awaits us, portended by those in our past. Mamacruz exists, and it’s because of Mánver.
Mamacruz uses her best when throwing her in the deep end with a group, expanding its more isolated narrative paradigm into a hang-out movie. Cruz runs headlong into a sex therapy group filled with charming, brash older women—cougarish widowers, cancer patients who want to jump their nurse’s bones, busty women with back problems—with whom she can commiserate. It’s not that Cruz needs to unlearn anything, rather that she needs to remember what used to be so fun. She’s got a past that isn’t the doting, chaste grandma. Everyone does. Watching them shoot liquor, smoke weed and goof off is inherently joyful, and a reminder that Ortega’s realistic handling of her ensemble is partially why Mánver’s turn is so arresting.
As Ortega and cinematographer Fran Fernández Pardo alternate between bottling Cruz up in her shadowed, cramped, homochromous home and letting her loose out in the ornate and multicolored world, this accelerating visual respiration—in and out—builds up to a glorious climax. Her marriage, her family, her religion, her childhood, her profession—everything can coexist with her evolving relationship towards her own physicality. While there’s nothing especially novel about Mamacruz’s confrontation of this common Catholic guilt trip, there is still something endearingly unexpected about an older performer getting the same bodily respect and freedom as a younger star. It won’t always be worth mentioning when an actor pushing 70 is allowed to look hot naked in a movie, but until that point, we should all be excited when a movie eroticizes someone outside of our culture’s extremely narrow beauty standards. Especially when that someone owns the screen as effortlessly and radiantly as Mamacruz’s Kiti Mánver.
Director: Patricia Ortega
Writer: Patricia Ortega, José Ortuño
Starring: Kiti Mánver
Release Date: January 20, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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