Review: Sunday’s Illness (La enfermedad del domingo)

Bárbara Lennie and Susi Sánchez in Sunday's Illness (La enfermedad del domingo)

Sunday’s Illness (La enfermedad del domingo) is a Spanish film currently streaming on Netflix. It’s the exquisitely beautiful and exquisitely painful story of a woman who searches out her mother 30 years after her mother abandoned her.

Written and directed by Ramón Salazar, Sunday’s Illness (La enfermedad del domingo) shows us 10 days of near silent reunion between the mother and daughter while in a remote house in the mountains of Spain.

When first we meet Anabel (Susi Sánchez), we see an obviously wealthy older woman hosting a dinner party. When all the caterers leave, one server remains. Anabel looks at her. They stare at each other in recognition for long moments, silent. Finally the young woman, Chiara (Bárbara Lennie), puts a wadded up sheet of paper on the table among the uncleared dishes and cutlery. She leaves.

Apparently in response to something on the paper, Anabel and Chiara meet in a hotel lobby. We discover that Anabel is Chiara’s mother. She abandoned her child when she was 8. They haven’t seen each other since. Anabel asks several times what Chiara wants. Her answer is that they spend 10 days together.

Before Anabel leaves for the visit with Chiara, lawyers make Chiara sign documents promising not to ask for money and not to demand any further contact at the end of the 10 days. She does this without even reading the contracts.

They drive together up into the mountains to a remote house that Anabel once lived in with Chiara’s father. Conversation is sparse. Anabel waits warily to see what Chiara actually wants from the visit.

The following day, Chiara leaves Anabel alone almost all day. Chiara sits in the forest for hours. She retrieves her dog from her neighbor. On the way home, she pushes the dog into a mud puddle. When she gets home she tells her mother she rescued the dog from a well and that is why they are both so muddy.

Anabel is in a dress. All her clothing is elegant. Fine fabrics perfectly tailored for her. Yet Chiara insists that Anabel help her wash the dog with a garden hose.

Bárbara Lennie and Susi Sánchez in Sunday's Illness (La enfermedad del domingo)

Then she asks her mother to rinse some of the mud from her hair with the hose. It’s the first time they’ve touched. We see how Chiara contrived with a lie to create this moment – a mother washing her daughter’s hair. Chiara does this a number of times in various ways in the next few days. She creates moments that should have passed between them, but never did.

Many things happen in the following days. The two women learn about each other. One telling scene has Chiara showing Anabel old slides with a slide projector. In one slide Anabel, pregnant with Chiara, stands beside Chiara at her current age. Anabel calls it a “temporal paradox.”

Chiara calls it a simple editing trick, but a temporal paradox is a good description Sunday’s Illness (La enfermedad del domingo) in its entirety. Chiara’s secrets create the ultimate temporal paradox between the mother and child.

In the silence between them, as Anabel questions again and again what Chiara wants from her, there is often a single note of music. It’s high-pitched and tense and held to interminable lengths. A second note, equally high, joins it for seconds. Then they stop, unresolved.

Everything in this film is as perfectly composed as that single note of music. Each shot is a composition of perfect beauty. The performances from the two women are brilliant. The film is perfectly expressed with withheld and contained emotion, added to withheld and contained truths.

When Chiara finally whispers in her mother’s ear, telling her what she wants and needs from her, we don’t hear it. But we see it. Later. When it happens.

Much as Sunday’s Illness (La enfermedad del domingo) is a tale of tragedy and pain, it’s also a brilliant work of art with stunning performances from the two actresses.  I give it the highest of ratings.

The film is mostly in Spanish with subtitles.

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