REVIEW: Costa Rica’s Oscar Entry Is a Sympathetic Look at a Woman Unraveling in the Face of Motherhood

Courtesy of Seattle International Film Festival

In many traditional Latin American families, women are responsible for the kids, cleaning, cooking and so much more. Their husbands offer little help in this regard, their chores are a bit more singular: make money. In Antonella Sudasassi’s El despertar de las hormigas (The Awakening of the Ants), these gendered expectations prove to be too much pressure for one unhappy mother.

Isabel (Daniela Valenciano) is a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Amid the kid-induced chaos and the burden of her husband’s pushy family, Isabel, or Isa as others call her, becomes increasingly discontent with her life. She struggles to control her two daughters, Valery (Isabella Moscoso) and Nicole (Avril Alpizar), and her husband, Alcides (Leynar Gomez), is oblivious to what she’s going through. But the audience sees what’s roiling around in her mind: visions of ants, fear of hair loss and smashing the cake she’s so meticulously decorated but her in-laws so casually dismiss. These daydreams and nightmares are sometimes so plausible, that even the viewer can lose track of whether or not these are real or imagined situations — until there’s a moment where she snaps out of a fantasy. However, not all of the moments end so neatly.

Written and directed by Sudasassi, The Awakening of the Ants is her first feature and has been chosen as Costa Rica’s selection for the Best International Feature Film joining over 90 films from around the world in the competition to make the Oscars’ shortlist. Only a handful of titles will advance to the next round of Oscar voting. Last year, Alfonso Cuarón finally won Mexico’s first award for Roma in what was then known as the Best Foreign Language Film.

In The Awakening of the Ants, there’s a light, sunny quality to Andrés Campos’s imagery. It’s as if Isa’s life should be as idyllic and dreamy as it looks. However, we can see beneath the surface that her passive smile is a mask, one that she’s forced to wear while caring for everyone’s needs but her own. No one really asks her how she’s doing, and if they try, Isabel doesn’t open up. The pressure to be a good mom can mean never allowing yourself to confess that you’re struggling to do the impossible, a situation that’s hardly limited to Isabel. The only person to get close to any truth is Isabel’s friend, Mireya (Carolina Fernandez), who gets her clothes hemmed as the two talk and convinces Isabel to go out for one night. Of course, it’s a night Isabel where runs into trouble both in and out of her home.

Part of what pushes Isabel to the edge is the ongoing pressure from her family to have more children. Alcides asks for a son, one that will carry on his name and give him a sense of macho pride. Isabel’s two precocious daughters beg their mother for a little brother, and they unintentionally guilt her when playing with their young cousin at church. They coo and try to play with him, causing him to fuss during the service. Isabel tries to remove the noisy distraction, but she becomes lost in thought. She can’t do this again. As it is, even everyday problems like hiccups, a piece of gum stuck in one of her girl’s hair, who’s going to pick up her kids and how to teach the little ones to braid their hair feel like a constant source of stress for Isabel, as if she were an always on-call doctor at an ER.

The tensions in her marriage become unintended catalysts for Isabel to find her voice. Their sex life has become less about passion and more about her husband’s goal for a son and her unresponsive face trying to hide her true objections. They fight over his mother picking up her kids from school without Isabel’s permission. His family judges her inability to wrangle her rambunctious girls to sit and behave in the church. Sudasassi depicts Isabel as isolated, alone in figuring herself out and watching over her daughters. It’s a maddening sensation that only intensifies over time.

For religious families like Isabel’s, her decision to go on birth control is an unforgivable sin, and her sister-in-law threatens to tell her brother, Alcides, what Isabel is doing behind her husband’s back. In a country where abortion is still difficult to obtain, a woman fighting for control of her body, even in a tiny act like saving up for birth control pills or telling her husband she wants no more kids, feels radical.

Isabel’s long, timid journey into standing up for herself takes on both literal and figurative forms. When she finally speaks up for her wants, she is standing while her husband sits, finally listening to her. The ants of her restless imagination are not bothering her now. After several scenes of Isabel watching her long flowing black hair — a sign of youth and femininity — fall out, she ultimately cuts her daughters’ hair short as if to signal that they will not be forced to follow in the same oppressive footsteps she was forced into. Although some of the recurring themes and motifs may feel heavy-handed at times, they effectively drive home Isabel’s frustrating experience of so-called domestic bliss, challenging anyone in her position to reclaim their agency.

El despertar de las hormigas is Costa Rica’s submission for the Best International Film category at the 92nd Academy Awards.