The first clear sign that there’s something unusual about Ma, the debut feature from Celia Rowlson-Hall, occurs just a few minutes in. A young woman (Rowlson-Hall)—she’s never named, but the credits call her Ma—steps out of the desert and onto a lonely highway, standing right in the middle of the road. Soon, a young man (Andrew Pastides), called Daniel in the credits, drives up in an Oldsmobile and stops in front of her. Ma climbs onto the hood of Daniel’s car, stretching out as if it were a king-size bed, and taps gently on the windshield, whereupon he drives to a motel, with Ma splayed across his hood the entire way. It looks like an absurdist joke, but the entire movie, it turns out, consists of unconventional motion. Rowlson-Hall was trained as a choreographer, and Ma is her attempt to make something roughly midway between dance and cinema, featuring no spoken dialogue whatsoever. (Someone sings “Amazing Grace”; that’s it for words.) The result is decidedly uneven, but the film’s sheer creative ambition is invigorating.
Ostensibly, Ma depicts the journey of a modern-day Virgin Mary as she prepares to give birth to the son of God, with Las Vegas as the new Bethlehem. Biblical parallels aren’t hard to spot, but the narrative here is every bit as skeletal as the narrative in a typical modern dance performance, and not particularly worth dwelling on; think of the film more as a series of thematically linked routines. Rarely is any sort of traditional dancing involved—while Rowlson-Hall has conceived every scene in terms of movement, she’s as apt to have a character jump up and down on a bed or fall into a swimming pool as perform a ballet. (She’s also clearly been influenced by Pina Bausch’s experimental Tanztheater, in which dancers interact with physical objects in ways that both are and decidedly are not graceful.) Crucially, a great deal of thought and energy has been expended on composition (widescreen, often multi-planed) and editing (fluid within scenes, jarring in transitions). Ma is very much a film, not a theater piece staged for the camera.
That said, it’s not clear that it really needed to be a feature film. (Rowlson-Hall had previously made a number of shorts.) Running a scant 83 minutes, it still includes a fair amount of what can only be termed visual filler, along with some wearying repetition. Even if one puts in the mental effort to interpret repeated shots of random characters (a cop played by Kentucker Audley, a motel desk clerk played by Amy Seimetz—Rowlson-Hall evidently knows a lot of indie-film people, given how insignificant these roles are) lugging the entire contents of a motel room across a sand dune, for example, the shots themselves are only compelling for so long. But when Ma uses her foot to represent a cobra preparing to strike, or Daniel blows into Ma’s mouth and she reacts as if being inflated, Ma serves as a reminder of how superfluous dialogue can be, and how many other ways exist to communicate ideas and emotions. Time will tell if Rowlson-Hall endures as a filmmaker. Even if she doesn’t, though, it’s good for artists from other disciplines to offer the medium a jump-start once in a while.