Mothers in cinema: The good, the bad and the ugly

While mothers are often portrayed as selfless and kind beings, some films feature more complex and nuanced characters

While Arab cinema has traditionally portrayed women as inherently benevolent, other countries have not shied away from depicting mothers as they are — even their flaws
Eduardo Ramon
While Arab cinema has traditionally portrayed women as inherently benevolent, other countries have not shied away from depicting mothers as they are — even their flaws

Mothers in cinema: The good, the bad and the ugly

Perhaps one of the biggest celebrations to mark the month of March every year is Mother’s Day. While the Arab world celebrates the special day on 21 March, the United Kingdom and Ireland celebrate the occasion on the fourth Sunday of Lent, which, this year, falls on 19 March.

In cinema, mothers are often portrayed as selfless beings — a common and preferred depiction for audiences everywhere. But many great cinematic works also portray the other facets of motherhood.

Before falling from grace and into the arms of death in the American classic ‘White Heat’(1949), James Cagney, arms wide open, shouts at the top of his lungs: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” right before the police shoot him dead.

The movie revolves around a criminal who has a complex relationship with his mother (portrayed by Margaret Wycherly). For him, all the friendship, love, and confidence he needs, he finds in “Ma.” Had Freud lived to see the year 1949, he would have definitely given his two cents on this oedipal relationship.

Mother’s honour

In life and film, mothers can be wise women, faithful wives, loving mothers, and homemakers that impart their wisdom to grateful husbands and sons. They can be defenders of their family and home, role models for their children, and the first confidante when problems arise.

Yet not all mothers fit this cookie cutter mold. Some mothers — just like any other human being — can be harsh, addicts, unbalanced, or even overly emotional. Cinema has not shied away from reflecting life as it is, and mothers as they are — even their flaws.

When Egyptian actor Farid Shawqi swears on his “mother’s honour” in his films, he puts mothers on the highest possible pedestal. A mother’s honour is undisputed, supreme. A “father’s honour,” on the other hand, might be questionable — which is why we don’t hear Shawqi or others swearing on it.

A mother's honour is undisputed, supreme. A "father's honour," on the other hand, might be questionable — which is why we don't hear Shawqi or others swearing on it.

In his film 'The Beginning and the End', his mother, played by Amina Rizk, does everything in her power to maintain her family's unity. Her son Hussein (Kamal Hussein) is still studying, Hasanein (Omar Sharif) is always complaining, and Hassan (Farid Shawqi) is inching ever closer to the wrong path in life, while her unmarried daughter turns to prostitution.

The Beginning and the End

Unbeknownst to her, the mother believes she is still bringing the family together. She does not know that her daughter (Amal Farid) has turned to prostitution to make ends meet, her son Hassan is flirting with crime, while Hasanein still dreams of achieving the impossible after becoming a policeman.

Amina Rizk portrays the mother with piety, devotion, and overwhelming desire to preserve the family's unity — oblivious as she may be to her utter failure in achieving her goal.

The plot of Salah Abu Seif's 1960 movie is based on Naguib Mahfouz's eponymous novel and attempts to portray a commonplace social tragedy. Had it not been for its weak end, which sees the daughter and her brother commit suicide, the film would have accurately captured its vision of the typical Egyptian family — at the time, at least.

The actress Amina Rizk (1910-2003) often played the role of the modest, pure mother who commits no wrongs — a wise yet simple mother who embodies sacrifice and selflessness. Such were her roles ever since her first films in the 1940s, including 'The Mother'(1945), 'Every House Has a Man'(1949), and 'The Big House'(1949). In the last two, the mother was even given the actress' name, Amina. In 'Mostafa Kamel'(1952), she plays the mother of the famous Egyptian anti-colonial activist. In most of her subsequent roles, Amina Rizk played a mother.


Perhaps it's her endearing, motherly facial features that landed Amina Rizk all these roles, but she was not the only actress to crown her acting career with such roles. Olwiyya Gamil, Ferdoos Mohammad, and Karima Mokhtar all portrayed mothers, with one difference perhaps from Amina Rizk. While Rizk's roles were nearly the same character uttering the same expressions, the others played more nuanced and complex characters.

Mary Mounib also made her mark among Egyptian actresses portraying mothers. She was the comedic figure of the mother who always sticks up for her daughters against their husbands, the mother-in-law no man wants.

Despite this, Egyptian — and more generally, Arab — cinema has crafted a single, one-size-fits-all character for most mothers. While honourable, this one-dimensional portrayal reinforced stereotypes about women being mothers even way before they get married and give birth.

However, some movies portrayed mothers as the purest of all human beings. One such film is Mohamed Radi's 'Mothers in Exile'(1981). By the time the credits roll, the spectator understands that everyone wishes they were thieves or sinners, but only a good mother (and who better than Amina Rizk to portray her?) listens to her conscience, powerless as it may be to affect the course of events.

In most productions on our screens, a mother is a righteous person, but it took a more daring director in 1982 to delve deeper into the issue of mothers and their dominance in family life.

This director was none other than Youssef Chahine. In his biographical film 'An Egyptian Story', Nour Sharif plays Chahine and the story follows his wife, sister, and mother as each of them deals with him and tries to control him in her own way.

An Egyptian Story

In this personal insight into his life, the director shows the other side of family life — the family's impact on man as a child and adult; the hegemony of mothers, sisters, and wives; and the deep-rooted feeling of belonging to others more than to oneself.

A Syrian memory

In the same vein, prominent Syrian filmmaker Mohammed Malas' film, 'Dreams of the City'(1984), brings to the forefront a boy's changing perspective on his mother during a gruelling journey. Upon leaving their village on the Syrian-Israeli border, a widowed mother (Yasmine Khlat) goes to the city of Damascus to stay with her father-in-law (Rafiq Subaie) in the hope that he will welcome her in his home.

After his initial objection, he allows the mother to live with her two sons in a small room. A cruel old man, he treats his daughter-in-law and her two sons harshly. Six years later, her eldest son, Dib, is working for an ironer (Hassan Dakak). One day, the mother believes a woman's offer of an arranged marriage to a rich groom, only to discover that the marriage that was concluded was only a pleasure marriage.

Dib feels enraged. He is too young to understand everything and too old to not feel his mother's pain, so he tries to reach the cheating husband and kill him. His failure is embodied in the final scene, in which he carries more than just his personal suffering.

The film's story takes place in the 1950s — a politically turbulent time in Syria before, during, and after its unification with Egypt. The film takes place against this backdrop, with private concerns colliding with public fears, giving the viewer a twin perspective.

The director filmed some scenes at his own grandfather's house and named the heroine, Yasmine Khtal, "Hayat," after his mother.

But it is those silent scenes through the eyes of the mother at times, and her son at others, that remain engraved in the spectator's mind. When the mother turns around as if she heard someone whispering her name, we are reminded of the scenes of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who approached ostensible movements and hidden thoughts with a wonderful aesthetic and a deafening silence.


We would be wrong, though, to look at the "Arab mother" as separate or different from mothers everywhere. In cinemas across the world, stories about mothers and their sacrifices, on the one hand, and mothers and their troubles, on the other, are abundant.

Mothers are present in cinema around the world.

One remarkable film about mothers and their sacrifices is Indian filmmaker Mehboob Khan's movie 'Mother India' about a mother called Radha (played by the actress Narjis). As its title suggests, the film tackles commonalities between the mother and the land.

The film opens with the sorrowful, elderly Radha smelling the earth in the field as tractors change the landscape around her forever. Unlike the other villagers, she is not convinced that the change will bring forth blessings, but being the "mother of the village," she acquiesces to the inauguration of a canal.

The film flashes back to Radha's younger days, when she married Shamu (Raaj Kumar). Her illiterate mother-in-law signed a contract that allows her moneylender to get three-quarters of their crop, condemning Shamu and Radha to a life of hard work as labourers. The dramatic events soon begin to unfold.

This tight link between motherhood and the land was also echoed by Soviet cinema giant Vsevolod Pudovkin in his film 'Mother.' In this drama, based on Maxim Gorky's 1906 novel, 'The Mother,' Vera Baranovskaya portrays a mother who tries to protect her son from joining the villagers' efforts to revolt against the landowners (pre-Communist Revolution). She later realises that her son was right in that protecting the land is the duty of every person and agrees to his collaboration with the villagers.

Russian cinema has also delivered a more important and popular movie in this regard: 'Ballad of a Soldier' by Grigory Chukhray in 1959. The mother (Antonina Maksimova) is not the heroine in this film; her son Alyosha (Vladimir Ivashov) is. On the frontline during WWII, Alyosha is granted permission to go visit his mother in the countryside, but he never makes it after meeting a woman who needs his help.

Ballad of a Soldier

In a moving scene, his mother gazes down a long country road awaiting her son. After an insufferable wait, her son realises his leave is about to end, and he must go back to the trenches.

In the same vein, German director Konrad Wolf's 1977 'Mama, I'm Alive'tells the story of a German prisoner of war. After surrendering to the Russians, he finds that all his hopes and dreams of a better and safe life are shattered. What he writes in letters to his mother could not be farther from the truth. Though we never see the mother, her presence is strongly felt, not least in the title.

The Grapes of Wrath

European and American societies also approached motherhood from their own lens. There's Jane Darwell, the Amina Rizk of Hollywood, with her loving, kind and selfless characters, albeit with less redundancy than her Egyptian peer.

European and American societies also approached motherhood from their own lens. There's Jane Darwell, the Amina Rizk of Hollywood, with her loving, kind and selfless characters, albeit with less redundancy than her Egyptian peer.

Darwell's first movie was John Ford's 1940 film 'The Grapes of Wrath,' which was based on the famous John Steinbeck novel of the same name. The story reflects the plight of the poor and migrants as they suffer the injustice of factory and bank owners in the wake of the Great Depression in the early 1930s.

The mother (Darwell) tries to guard her son Tom (Henry Fonda) against the looming danger, but he does not heed her warnings. When he speaks to the masses, "Ma Joad" looks at him with fearful eyes.

The Grapes of Wrath

Ma Joad's encapsulates the resilience of the working class in the face of overwhelming poverty and struggle when she says in the film: "Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good an' they die out. But we keep a'comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people."

This stark portrayal of social misery raised apprehensions for film producer Darryl Zanuck. He was wary of potential backlash from conservatives, especially in light of McCarthyism at the time. Nevertheless, Director John Ford, who held right-wing beliefs, encouraged Zanuck to read the novel and assured him that he would have had the right to fear the consequences of a faithful adaption of the novel.

Darwell portrayed a wide range of characters, including iconic classics such as 'Gone with the Wind' (1939) and 'Mary Poppins'(1964). She graced the screen with her versatile talent, appearing in 181 roles. However, her ability to embody the role of a loving and concerned mother truly set her apart, notably in 'The Ox-Bow Incident'(1932), again starring Henry Fonda, 'My Darling Clementine'(1946) directed by John Ford, 'Highways by Night'(1942), and remained a defining characteristic of her illustrious acting career.

Mothers in the spotlight

Shelley Duvall, Jodie Foster, and Diane Lane each bring their own distinct flavour to this vibrant cinematic landscape. Duvall's performance in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film 'The Shining'portrays a mother's struggle to shield herself and her son from her husband's (played by Jack Nicholson) descent into madness.

Similarly, in David Fincher's 2002 thriller 'Panic Room,' Foster's character is forced to protect her daughter in a hidden room from home invaders (a situation that taps into the universal fear of invasion in one's own home).

Panic Room

Meanwhile, Thomas Bezucha's 2020 film 'Let Him Go'explores the lengths a mother will go to recover her daughter-in-law from her ex-husband's family (lack of security even at the level of one family).

However, not all American film productions portray motherhood in a positive light. American cinema, admittedly so, has a knack for drawing inspiration from real life.

Not all American film productions portray motherhood in a positive light. American cinema, admittedly so, has a knack for drawing inspiration from real life.

When a movie draws inspiration from the true story of a female gang leader who committed robberies and murders with her children and gang members in the 1930s and 40s under the name Kate Parker, the resulting film, 'Bloody Mama,' doesn't stray too far from reality. While 'Bloody Mama'captures a period in the history of classic American gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, and Machine Gun Kelly, it also centres around the villainous mother.

In Larry Shaw's 1997 film, 'Mother Knows Best,'the mother plays the role of the antagonist as she sets out to find and kill her daughter's fiancé. Similarly, in Frank Perry's 1981 film, 'Mommie Dearest', the mother is portrayed as a callous and ruthless figure who cares little about her daughter's well-being.

The inclusion of 'Mommie Dearest'in this discussion is understandable, given that it is based on the real-life experiences of Joan Crawford — an actress who allegedly subjected her daughter to severe emotional abuse. The movie depicts some of these events and features Faye Dunaway as the late actress.

Not all maternal figures in cinema shine in a positive light. A prime example of this is depicted in the 1982 movie 'Frances,' which delves into the harrowing life of actress Frances Farmer. Her mother had her declared insane and committed to psychiatric institutions where she endured electroconvulsive therapy, injections, and even rape. The movie, featuring Jessica Lange, exposed one of Hollywood's hidden tragedies.

Similarly, books and movies have shone a spotlight on the arduous life of Marilyn Monroe, with the most recent being the 2022 film 'Blonde,' directed by Andrew Dominik. Far from being the epitome of selfless motherhood, Monroe's mother played a significant role in exacerbating her daughter's struggles.

The 2022 film 'Blonde,' directed by Andrew Dominik, was far from depicting selfless motherhood. Marilyn Monroe's mother played a significant role in exacerbating her daughter's struggles.

'Psycho' and 'The Birds'

As one explores the expansive world of films and models that delve into the intricacies of motherhood, a particular relationship stands out — the singular dynamic between renowned director Alfred Hitchcock and the mother figure.

Hitchcock's portrayal of mothers is noteworthy and they are featured prominently in his films. The mother is not just portrayed as the mother of the protagonist, but rather as a multifaceted and distinct presence that sets her apart from typical depictions in other films.

Starting with 'The Lodger'(1927), which was Hitchcock's first talking film, and continuing through 'Sabotage'(1936), 'The Lady Vanishes'(1938), and 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' (1956), the strongest characters were often women who exhibited decisiveness and quick-thinking, unafraid to take action when the situation demanded it.

However, as Hitchcock's later films, such as 'Notorious'(1946) and 'North by Northwest'(1959), became more dark and intricate, the portrayal of female characters took a more ominous turn and the mother figure was depicted in an extremely negative light.


In Hitchcock's 1963 film, 'The Birds,' Jessica Tandy portrays the overbearing mother of protagonist Rod Taylor. Despite her son being a middle-aged man, they still live together under one roof.

Hitchcock masterfully weaves a Freudian complex into the storyline amidst the terrifying scenes of killer birds attacking the town. One character confides in the film's heroine, Melanie (played by Tippi Hedren), that Rod's mother is the reason behind his inability to commit to marriage. As the birds grow more menacing and attack the house to kill its habitants, Melanie, Rod's new love interest, finds herself in the home of the controlling mother and her son.

Melanie represents a modern, free-spirited woman, while the mother embodies a traditional, fearful mindset that fears being left alone if her son leaves. Despite their initial differences, the two women undergo significant transformations as they face the impending danger of bird attacks. Melanie develops empathy and understanding, while the mother learns to adapt and let go of her control over her son.

Three years prior to creating this masterpiece, Hitchcock accomplished another masterpiece that was no less intricate. 'Psycho'(1960) revolves around the mother, despite the fact that she is deceased. The story depicts the harsh domination that her son Norman (Anthony Perkins) still endures, to the extent that he murders every woman who visits the secluded hotel that he manages. This is precisely what happens to city runaway Marion (Janet Leigh) when she decides to stay at the hotel for a night.

Norman discovered that his mother harboured an intense dislike for any attractive woman who might take him away from her. Despite her passing, he kept her skeletal remains and dressed them in her clothing. During his violent entrance into Janet Leigh's room, he dons his mother's attire and assumes her persona.

The murder scene in the bathroom highlights the complexity of the situation, with the killer embodying both the son and the mother. Hitchcock masterfully expanded upon the mother's character, revealing an unexplored dimension that had never before been depicted with such depth and quality.

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