Directed by: Sarah McCarthy
Starring: Dr. Robert Marvin, Claudio Diaz, Cheryl Diaz, Masha Diaz
We all have a lot to learn: about love, how to nurture and how to listen to one another in order to create and maintain lasting relationships. This is what the film, The Dark Matter of Love, explores in-depth. Director Sarah McCarthy (The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical) looks at the timely topic of adopting Russian orphans.
McCarthy, an Australian native, introduces the audience to a bubbly, tight-knit family of three, who have held onto the dream of adopting and expanding their family for over six years. When their dream finally comes to light, Claudio and Cheryl Diaz are thrilled to find out that they are able to fly to the north-western city of Arkhangelsk, Russia, to adopt three young children.
Masha Kulabokhova is a distant, timid, bright-eyed eleven-year-old who takes her time to introduce herself to her new family, let alone make eye contact to ease the tension of the initial meeting. Her withdrawn demeanour sets her apart from the five-year-old twin boys who will also become her siblings, Marcel and Vadim, who are both very rambunctious and protective of each other. The three children arrive to their new home in Wisconsin amidst Masha’s awkward silences and the twins’ noisy contrast to Masha’s shyness.
Against the twins’ frequent, ear-splitting temper tantrums, Masha exhibits no emotion and expresses how she “never cries” and “never wishes to confide in anybody,” no matter how she feels. It is that protective barrier and her bottled emotions that create the noticeable strain on her developing relationship with her new family. The dark shadow that she casts upon herself takes a physiological toll on her body.
The film is interwoven with archives of video material that explore the subject matter of child development and child-parent bonding theories. Austrian zoologist Konrad Zarcharias Lorenz’s discovery of imprinting and the formation of social bonds in infant animals comes into play here. His experiment noted that there is a 24-hour critical period for the purpose of developing an attachment to a caregiver. This innate behaviour exemplified that imprinting is the learning process of developing a bond between a parental figure and a young child. These experiments helped to pave the way for the study of “critical periods” in the development of the brain and how our early experiences in life help to shape social behaviour in adulthood. Can Masha still have that opportunity to form that critical bond in order to adapt to her new environment? Can young adult brains adjust as well?
Although the film’s synopsis foreshadows an eerie twist within the adoption experience with the phrase “the family falls apart,” The Dark Matter of Love should not be viewed as dramatic or harsh in that sense. Though the Diaz’s at times question their abilities as parents, particularly centring around their newly adopted children, they understand that it takes time to form a lasting family bond, even without the apparent limitation of the language barrier. It should be noted that the film merely summarises their journey as a new family for just a year. Six months after the adoption process, a positive change and family unity are already apparent. It is through this small time lapse that the Diaz’s explain to the audience that: “it takes a great deal of patience when working with these children. Adoption is a challenge [both] emotionally and spiritually.” Yes, there is always still some room for optimism. In order for any positive change to occur, a sense of structure and rules must be clearly laid out with empathy and understanding integrated into the configuration. Without rules, the household structure will crumble.
Striking themes are presented in the film: displacement vs. acceptance, nature vs. nurture, in addition to attachment, responsibility and development. Throughout the film, we cannot resist the urge to tap into our own awareness of how we have created and maintained our bonds throughout life, how and why we have chosen to distance ourselves. As caregivers, we do not need experiments and theories to dictate how we raise our children and how we should develop relationships. Ultimately, we must trust our ability to be open and understanding to those closest and most important in our lives.