Sunday’s Illness Review: Netflix’s Elegant, Stately Mother-Daughter Drama

Sunday's Illness

Ramón Salazar's direct-to-Netflix Spanish drama is a heartfelt exploration of the tenuous bonds between mother and daughter, anchored by sumptuous filmmaking.

(You can read our interview with Salazar – in both English en español – here.)

For most people, their most powerful relationship is the one they’ve had since birth. Parents start off as our only source of guidance, taking the role of both teacher and protector. They are the ones that tend to instill their religious, political and social views on us before we are become aware enough to develop our own views.

The loss of such an important bond is devastating even under the most accidental of circumstances but realizing the loss was intentional and premeditated makes the pain unimaginable. Sunday’s Illness, Netflix’s latest dip into international arthouse film distribution, takes this pain and crafts it skillfully into every frame of the film to create an immersive experience that highlights the importance of familial bonds, and the deep wounds left when they are taken away.

Writer/Director Ramón Salazar has never been one to shy away from tense, family dramas. His understanding of family dynamics is well cataloged in his past films, along with his focus on female relationships and sexual identity. With Sunday’s Illness, Salazar explores the bond between mother and daughter, and the painful echoes that come from breaking that bond. Chiara (Bárbara Lennie) was only 8 when her mother, Anabel (Susi Sánchez), walked out on her and her father, never looking back. Over 30 years later, Chiara tracks down her mother and asks to spend 10 days with her in their old home in the woods, which Chiara has never moved out of. Anabel, now a part of high society, agrees under the condition that Chiara never reveal their true relation to anyone.

The odd request Anabel makes becomes a tonal catalyst that is meant to shroud the film in a cloud of mystery until the enlightening climax. Since the first encounter between Chiara and Anabel, the film wants the audience to actively guess and second-guess Chiara’s intentions. Following the few narrative breadcrumbs leads to the viewer creating an ever-evolving theory of where the film is heading, but rarely does it head in an expected direction. Salazar crafts the film using our biases against us. Although few people have experienced anything like the loss Chiara has endured, it is easy to imagine how we would react in that situation, and what our agenda might be over 30 years later. The film’s sinister air flows throughout the entire film, but only near the end are we shown if it is a red-herring or something insidiously understated.

Sunday’s Illness thrives in its enigmatic nature, which it does with the help of Salazar’s dialogue-light script. Understandably, the interactions between mother and daughter are uncomfortable, forcing us to rely on visual cues and body language. Save for a couple of encounters, the conversations in the film are few, forcing our focus onto not only what is said, but more specifically what remains unsaid. This is where the attention to detail goes beyond what is written, the actors’ physical performances speaking volumes.

This is Salazar’s second film starring Susi Sánchez, and their collaboration together continues to be magnificent. Sánchez shines in a role so understated and nuanced that it is impossible to picture any other person playing Anabel – the film feels like it was created just for her. She exudes effortless elegance but can easily reach the opposite end of the spectrum, which the film ends up calling for. Her chemistry with Bárbara Lennie is magnetic, drawing their characters inevitably together while also pulling us deeper into the film.

Sánchez and Lennie’s performances are the centerpieces and support structure of Sunday’s Illness, but their art would be greatly diminished without gorgeous backdrops to highlight them. To show the juxtaposition between the life Anabel left behind and her current status, Salazar begins by taking us on a stunning architectural tour to emphasize the high-class elegance before shifting to something more naturalistic. The shift not only happens to the film’s setting; it becomes a harbinger for Anabel’s personal transformation. Society views the bond between a parent and their child as something as sacred as it is natural. Salazar’s affirming view resonates throughout Sunday’s Illness as we see the mother shed her superficial skin and try to reclaim the congenital role she so unnaturally abandoned.

Of course, all of Sunday’s Illness beautifully rendered drama culminates in a climax staged almost like living artwork, a return to nature that acts as the film in microcosm. After an Almodóvarian confrontation centered firmly on its relationships between characters, the film continues wordlessly, beautifully scored by composer Nico Casal. In the final minutes of the film, it becomes clear that this thematically-charged return to nature could have only concluded one way. After all, the week must end before it can start again.

Sunday’s Illness is currently available on Netflix.

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