In Las Buenas Hierbas, or The Good Herbs, this gentle yet intense Mexican film by Novaro, we follow the life of young bohemian single mother, Dalia, dealing her herbalist mother’s deterioration from Alzheimer’s. Despite the grim sounding premise and the presentation of mental deterioration, which quite frankly terrified me about becoming old, the peacefulness of the surrounding story makes Las Buenas Hierbas far more enjoyable than it sounds.
With performances that are touching and understated, particularly Ophelia Medina and Úrsula Pruneda as mother and daughter, the entire female cast won best actress at the Rome Film Festival. The characters appear to meander in and out of the film, often with their relationships never fully articulated, creating the sense of a real life outside the framework of the movie, where their lives are continued off screen. Subtle humour also punctuates the story, largely provided by Dalia’s young son, Cosmo, through his innocent childish antics such as his interactions with the plants that mean so much to the adults around him.
Despite the realism of the cinematography and direction, at times surreal elements add to the complexity of the picture. In the opening scenes Dalia is seen running through the rain to a payphone into which she says ‘I didn’t think you’d answer, because you’re dead’. Similarly, a recurring motif of a young girl in a princess dress ties in to the narrative in the final stages of the film, however for the large part is an unexplained and intriguing piece of almost gothic imagery. This is made all the more unusual by the realism of the cinematography, making the film stand out from others that have explored these familiar themes.
A beautiful yet simple soundtrack by Judith de León and Santiago Chávez with its gently strung guitar chords, adds a comforting background to a film that music often pervades, but is never fully acknowledged. Dalia works at an alternative radio station and the supporting characters are often shown spontaneously creating music together, one on a guitar and the other joining in drumming on whatever implement she has around her. These scenes add to the sense that the audience is dipping into a way of life rather than simply a stand-alone drama.
Las Buenas Hierbas deals with tough themes with sympathy and understanding, never judging its characters. Therefore by shying away from melodrama the film becomes more affecting, and creates a longer lasting impression.