(2021) Documentary (PBS) Maria Dionisia “Mama Icha” Navarro, Gustavo Navarro, Alberto Navarro, Epifania Ortiz, Michelle Ángela Ortiz, Oscar Molina. Directed by Oscar Molina
As you reach a certain age, you long for the familiar, a longing that becomes almost obsessive. You yearn for the things that comforted you as a youth; the sounds, the smells, the people that were around you. For someone who has immigrated to another country, that pull can be powerful indeed.
93-year-old Maria Dionisia Navarro – known affectionately to her family as “Mama Icha,” is deep in the grip of that pull. She moved to Philadelphia to help out her daughter Epifania, who has hammered out a comfortable living running a catering business, where her own daughter Michelle helps out. Mama, over the years, has been able to put away money to maintain her old house in Colombia, in the picturesque village of Mompox (it is a World Heritage Site, according to UNESCO) where Mama Icha grew up.
Epifania tries to talk her out of it. She reminds her that she will lose her social security benefits and Medicare if she leaves this country. Mama Icha is adamant, though; her little house has been waiting for her and calls to her. Her son Gustavo has been looking after the place and she cannot wait to get back. Reluctantly, Epifania gives her mother her blessing, perhaps knowing deep inside that she will never see her Mama again.
When Mama Icha arrives in Colombia, she is shocked to find her house a shambles. The tiny house is in sore need of cleaning, trash is piled up in every room, and many of Mama Icha’s things are missing or have been befouled. Mama is so upset she throws Gustavo out of the house. Gustavo responds by insinuating that his brother Alberto has been planting ideas in their mother’s head. It is clear that there is no love lost between the two brothers. The money that has been sent to pay the bills for the house apparently wasn’t enough – or perhaps, as Alberto hints, Gustavo has been using it for his own expenses. Certainly Gustavo doesn’t appear to have a job of any sort.
It isn’t too long after she arrives that Mama Icha begins to feel poorly. It has taken almost all of her money to pay the bills on the house that Gustavo hasn’t kept up with and there is little left over for medicine and doctor visits. Gustavo decides that the best course of action is to sell the house and take his mother to a neighboring town where Gustavo is sure he can find lodging. Mama is very much against this idea, but she may have little choice in the matter.
Colombian documentary filmmaker Molina followed around Mama both in Philly and in Mompox. While he doesn’t appear on-camera, he can be heard posing questions to Mama and her family, often asking for clarification when things don’t make sense (which happens fairly regularly). It is in many ways a heartbreaking film; Mama Icha just wants to spend her last days in dignity, surrounded by the familiar sights and people of her town. As it looks increasingly likely that she will be denied even that, the sadness that fills her face is palpable and as she is driven away from her tiny home for the very last time, it is hard not to feel pain for the old woman. Little regard is given to her wishes, especially by her sons who are convinced they know better, and Gustavo clearly has been taking advantage of his mother for many years now, and Alberto comes off only marginally better.
Which makes the early scenes all the more poignant in retrospect. In Philadelphia, at least she was surrounded by family that cared for her and eventually because they wanted her to be happy, let her go. There she had money coming in from social security, and she had Medicare to cover her medical needs. It makes me wonder that Mama Icha might not have listened to the very sage advice (as it turned out) of her daughter and granddaughter because they are women, and women in Latin culture have traditionally not been given much respect. It’s one of those things of the machismo culture that I find absolutely mind-boggling.
The film is currently available to view for free on the POV website (see below) for American audiences. It reminds us that we have a tendency to cast the elderly out as if they have outlived their usefulness, something that even families will do to one another. It makes me want to go and hug my own mom.
REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics in Mama Icha’s family are both fascinating and heartbreaking. Certainly a wake-up call for those entering their golden years.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could use just a smidge more detail.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first in a planned trilogy of films by Molina concerned with the topics of roots, migration, belonging and poverty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: POV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Not a Burden
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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