Review: Mother of Mine (Äideistä parhain) (2005)

Over twenty million men and women died in World War Two. There were also millions who escaped with their lives but who were left spiritually wounded. Few who lived in Europe were unaffected by the war. Among the victims were thousands of children who were separated from their parents for much of the war. In many ways they were the lucky ones, for many escaped into safer countries. Mother of Mine traces the story of one Finish boy, Eero Lahti, who was caught in the detritus of the war.

During the war, Finland was aligned with the Axis powers. Sweden, just across the Baltic Sea, was unaligned. It became a logical destination for young children like Eero to go for an extended “vacation” with a host family. While the idea sounded humane in theory, it was still wrenching in practice. It was more so in Eero’s case, because he lost his father to the war shortly before being sent to Sweden. His world, which had been wrapped around his father and his mother Kirsti, was suddenly bereft of both friends and family. Moreover, Eero arrived in Sweden, unable to speak a word of Swedish, and placed with a childless farm family. As if his world was not topsy turvy enough, he finds little but coldness from his foster mother Signe. The only person that seems to care at all for him is his foster father Hjalmar, whose Finnish is rudimentary and whose attentions are often elsewhere.

Eero is also an unusually sensitive boy for whom any change is unwelcome and who is easily frustrated. He dreams of returning home to his mother, and even starts constructing a raft to make the trip home, a foolish and perilous journey which when he attempt it nearly kills him. His unhappiness turns to despair when he reads a letter from his mother to his foster mother, saying she has met a man in Germany who she wants to marry. Kirsti wants the family to adopt Eero permanently. Meanwhile, through the wireless he hears reports that the Russians have invaded his country. Helsinki is in flames and there are thousands of civilian casualties. In short, his world is blown away and he feels trapped in a situation that seems shows no possibility of improving. Moreover, he is emotionally devastated to learn that his mother wants to give him up for permanent adoption.

I was a sensitive boy like Eero, so it wasn’t hard for me to relate to his trauma in this low key but very well made film. Topi Majaniemi is a gifted young actor who convincingly plays Eero in a part that would be challenging for any child his age. The roles in this movie are few, but the acting is uniformly excellent. Maria Lundqvist has perhaps the most demanding role as Eero’s foster mother. She portrays a complex woman whose antipathy for Eero is hard to understand, until it becomes clear that, like Eero, she too has suffered devastating personal losses. It is her decision to share her loss with Eero that eventually helps her feel affection for him. Yet no amount of affection can salve Eero’s mental wounds. That his mother does not want him back in her life after being such a nurturing presence is like a knife through his heart.

As you might expect, this movie comes with subtitles, but that should not dissuade you from spending ninety minutes or so in Eero’s poignant world. Not only is it convincingly acted, but it is also well staged and superbly directed. If your childhood, like mine, had periods of dysfunction, this movie will help you realize that your problems were probably trifles. And Eero’s problems, as heart wrenching as they were to him, were very small in the context of a much larger and uglier war.

3.2 on my 4 point scale.

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