A raw drama about abandonment and family, Sunday’s Illness explores the relationship between a mother and the daughter she abandoned and is bolstered by the abilities of its two lead actresses.
A not particularly fun fact about me is that my father left my mother when she fell pregnant. I’ve never met him or communicated with him, and thus never missed him. It’s something I rarely think about and almost never share, not because it bothers me, but because even though on some subconscious level I suppose it has helped to shape who I am, I wholeheartedly believe it’s ultimately unimportant. I found myself pondering this while watching Sunday’s Illness (La Enfermedad del Domingo), the new Spanish Netflix drama written and directed by Ramón Salazar, about a mother who agrees to spend ten days with the daughter she abandoned 35 years prior.
Sunday’s Illness is raw and uncompromising, riddled with tension and bitter resentment. The relationship between Anabel (Susi Sánchez), the mother, and Chiara (Bárbara Lennie), the daughter she abandoned when she was eight years old, doesn’t hold any resemblance to my relationship with anyone, let alone a parent. But it got me thinking all the same, which is a relatively rare thing when you watch as many films as I do.
What I recognised the most was the sense of masquerade exhibited by Anabel, who has built a life for herself that includes a husband, Bernabé (Miguel Ángel Solá), another daughter, and enough wealth and privilege that once Chiara comes a-calling she can be descended upon by lawyers and offered incentives to vanish once again. My mother never remarried, never had more children, and certainly never became wealthy, but there was always something there, particularly when she struggled, that felt performative. She could – and did – build a life for me on her own. But it occurs to me that doing so without help was harder than she ever really let on. I’ve never resented my father for never being there for me; but now, in a way, I resent him for not being there for her.
Chiara doesn’t want money. She’s perfectly content to sign away any future claims she might make to property and wealth. All she wants is ten days; ten days spent with her mother, to which they both agree, for different reasons. Chiara’s motivations are clear. But Anabel’s are cloudier, and perhaps, oddly, more devastating. “I see myself in her”, she says to her husband when he asks if she’s sure that Chiara is her daughter. What might that be like, to see those echoes of yourself in someone, much less someone you abandoned? What might they have been like, if you’d stayed? More like you, or less? Which would you prefer?
These are some of the questions that Chiara and Anabel ask of themselves and each other, in an isolated house on a wooded mountain where cell phones don’t get signal and they are, in effect, completely alone. The backdrop is more reminiscent of horror than familial drama – however often the two might overlap – but Sunday’s Illness takes a rockier, more treacherous path through the wild lands of anger and confusion. Those questions, most of them are rhetorical. How can they not be? You can make up for lost time, or try to, anyway, but it’s one of the few things in life that, once it goes missing, never turns up again.
Both Sánchez and Lennie showcase impressive range as they confront each other and the three and a half decades that passed between them. You realise quickly that the occasional suggestions of how things might have been under different circumstances don’t represent the path to healing, and no matter how much Anabel and Chiara turn over the fractured pieces of their relationship, there’s no chance it’ll all fit back snugly together. This is the more uncomfortable version of Sunday’s Illness, the unhappier one, but it’s also the most emotional, the most reminiscent of reality and truth. A lot can be accomplished in ten days, but not everything. I’ll continue to think about that.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.