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Patricia Lawler KenetMarch 18, 2022
Olivia Coleman in ‘The Lost Daughter’ (Netflix)Olivia Coleman in ‘The Lost Daughter’ (Netflix)

Images of motherhood in the Western Catholic canon communicate a powerful message of obedience and self-sacrifice. The Virgin Mary was the essence of purity and forbearance. When the Angel Gabriel announced that she was to be the Mother of God, Mary’s response was brief and compliant. She utters: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

Centuries of paintings depict Mary nursing, holding and otherwise caring for Jesus, from the nativity scenes to the crucifixion. Perhaps the most iconic rendering of Mary in art is Michelangelo’s sculpture “La Pietà,” as she cradles the body of her son after he is taken down from the cross. She is engulfed in grief, but there is no hint of outrage or anger at her child’s defilement. Another revered mother, the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, represents wealth, beauty and fertility and is described as restless, whimsical yet maternal. To imagine a “restless” Mary is to defy her identity.

Images of motherhood in the Western Catholic canon communicate a powerful message of obedience and self-sacrifice. 

As a young Catholic, I adored Mary and celebrated her in prayer, novenas, hymns and May processions. (I was once a runner-up for the May Queen!) I was entranced by her selflessness and grace, and aspired to be a humble servant of God. I was also raised by a mother who devoted herself to her family and swept her own ambitions under the rug of homemaking and marriage. As the youngest of four children, I was witness to the heartbreak of my mother trying to save my oldest brother from his drug addiction. She emptied her bank account to raise his bail money and pay for rehab. She pleaded with police and judges to give him “one more chance.” I now recognize the identification with martyrdom she imprinted on me as I struggle to balance the role of supportive wife and mother with my desire to forge a writing career.

For an alternative to these traditional notions of motherhood, consider “The Lost Daughter,” starring Olivia Colman. The film has garnered three Academy Award nominations—Colman for Best Actress, Jessie Buckley for Best Supporting Actress and Maggie Gyllenhaal for Best Adapted Screenplay—and is based on a book by Elena Ferrante.

When we first encounter Colman’s middle-aged character, Leda, she is breezing along in her car alone, wearing glamorous dark sunglasses against the Mediterranean sun. She arrives at a seaside resort wearing a Cheshire cat smile and bringing a wardrobe of loose linen cover-ups. At first, one wonders whether she is going to meet her family, friend or lover, but it soon becomes clear that Leda’s only companions are her books and unspoken thoughts.

“The Lost Daughter” raises startling questions about the role of motherhood as it comes into conflict with a woman’s desire to achieve something beyond domestic responsibilities.

It takes an actress as skilled as Colman to hold our interest as enigmatic Leda floats on her back in the sea and observes a boisterous American family who argue, laugh and tease one another. When one of the members asks Leda to move her beach chair to accommodate the large group, she refuses. It is one of several signs that below Leda’s placid exterior a volcano of emotional turmoil threatens to erupt. As the novelist and critic Miranda Beverly-Whitmore has stated, Leda is “watchful, wary, fierce and a little unhinged.”

Slowly, Leda develops a relationship with one of the mothers in the family group. Leda tells her that she has two daughters and admits that for her, having children was a “crushing responsibility.” She also calls herself an “unnatural mother.” We learn what Leda means by that statement in a series of flashbacks in which the young Leda, played brilliantly by Jessie Buckley, attends to her children, one of whom is especially needy. Young Leda is torn between raising her daughters and cultivating an academic career. The fact that her husband is not the most supportive spouse adds to her frustration. She describes her life as “suffocating,” and the claustrophobic scenes with the young girls climbing, screaming and demanding attention in a cluttered apartment prove the point.

Most women won’t take Leda’s extreme path, but most mothers will find a kernel of painful truth in her choices.

Young Leda makes a momentous decision regarding her family that she later describes as “amazing,” adding, “It felt like I’d been trying not to explode and then I exploded.” The fallout from this choice is only obliquely referenced. Instead, we are drawn back into the actions of middle-aged Leda at the beach as she comes into possession of an object that upturns the American family’s relative tranquility and takes a startling, destructive turn. What drives Leda to engage in such cruel and risky behavior is at the heart of “The Lost Daughter.”

There is no easy answer to why Leda acts as she does, but one surmises that she is conflicted about being liberated from the responsibilities of parenthood and wracked by guilt for the price she paid for that freedom. One cannot help but recall the recent admonishments of Pope Francis that it can be selfish to be content owning pets when one has the means of raising children. But in the case of Leda, she might have had a less conflicted life if she had settled for a cat. The hard truth is she wanted children and a professional life. For her, trying to balance the two proved impossible and ultimately, catastrophic.

“The Lost Daughter” raises startling questions about the role of motherhood as it comes into conflict with a woman’s desire to achieve something beyond domestic responsibilities. It makes us wonder whether we need to aspire toward the example of Mary, who found wholeness in her calling, or whether that striving toward perfection can undo us. “The Lost Daughter” presents a dramatic example of the consequences of failing to find contentment amid society’s expectations. Most women won’t take young or middle-aged Leda’s extreme path, but most mothers will find a kernel of painful truth in her choices.

Perhaps we can look to Mary for consolation during the difficult years of child rearing. We may even want to send a wink and a nod to Lakshmi for her boundless energy instead of resorting to Leda’s destructive spiral. It would be neither selfish nor self-defeating to surrender ourselves to the ideals of motherhood while accepting the limitations of our reality.

“The Lost Daughter” is a tense and deeply psychological film. While we may not root for Leda as we would a true heroine, we cannot take our eyes off her, hoping she can find a way to survive despite the dark road on which she journeys.

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