The only words in Celia Rowlson-Hall's dance film Ma are in the final scene, when a young girl warbles "Amazing Grace." But its heavy, eerie silence is more than lack of dialogue—for much of the movie there's no music or sound besides a low hum, so even a handful of drumbeats is a welcome and exciting change of pace.
To be fair, describing Ma as a "dance film" is a bit of a stretch. Movement is central but it's also an art piece and a silent drama that embraces the mundane and the absurdist. Intimate scenes of daily life—time spent alone in bathrooms, a quick trip to the gas station—become twisted and unpredictable with characters that don't follow the rules of our world.
The plot is advertised as a modern-day retelling of the trip that Mary and Joseph made from Nazareth to Bethlehem, before Mary gave birth to Jesus. (This time, the journey is from an isolated spot in the desert to Las Vegas.) But the story that Ma actually tells is entirely new. The titular character, played by director/writer/producer Celia Rowlson-Hall, is fragile, wild, and unhinged. In the middle of a conversation or errand, her eyes often glaze over, and she takes off on strange whim to act out a bizarre and dream-like urge. Then, quicker than she disappeared, she's back in the realm of the (relatively) normal.
The pace starts off slow, basking in the warm glow of the desert and pastel, muted shades of rural motels, then snowballs, gathering speed and urgency and (finally) delivering long stretches of beautiful, frenzied modern dance—as well as a complicated feminist message that prioritizes raw emotion and identity. Stick with it. It's worth the wait.
Celia Rowlson-Hall will be in attendance for the screenings this Saturday, Feb 11, and Sunday, Feb 12, at Northwest Film Forum.