AMAD-Horror Edition: Sauna

6 Oct

Sauna02

Oct 6th, 2009–

cinemagrade b A.J. Anila’s Sauna is an odd and challenging  film. The Finnish horror feature is the second for its director and like his first, Jade Warrior, it’s a melding of genres; supernatural horror, historical drama and existential mystery.  A grim, cold and foreboding movie, Sauna is really about the price of sin and the nature of guilt. I’ve watched it twice now over the past few days, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

Drawing on the contemplative and visually complex style of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and introducing the slimy, grotesque phantoms associated with Asian cinema, Anilla makes a movie that is inclined to lofty thoughts but ends up being a series of pretty moving paintings that only teases depth. No matter, these are very pretty paintings indeed, and to have a film that even begins to approach such topics as sin, human choice and the desire for atonement is a rare treat. Sauna isn’t completely successful, but I am quite glad I saw it and won’t soon forget  many of its images.

Sauna Feature - Ville Virtanen and Tommi Eronen

Set in the 1500s, at the end of a long-running war between Finland and Russia, Sauna follows the Spore brothers, Erik (Ville Virtanen) and Knut (Tommi Eronen), who are serving as Finnish representatives on a survey mission that will define the boundaries of the two countries. Erik, a battle-hardened veteran of the war, and Knut, a young scholar with a university post awaiting him, are traveling along with a Russian diplomat and his military personnel when they find a strange town where the children have all died and the old refuse to. Beyond the borders of the town, in the swamp, stands a sauna. The folklore of the village suggests that it might possess the power to absolve one of their sins. Knut is cautious, but Erik determined, and slowly he becomes fixated on the compelling promise of the sauna’s properties.

The event that stands at the center of Anila’s film is a night-time skirmish that occurs between a Russian farmer and Erik and results in the former’s death at the hands of the latter.  Knut, fearing that Erik may get violent–his brother has a hatred of the Russians and his conscience has become seared and scarred by the war–hides the farmer’s young daughter in a cellar and leaves her there. When he discovers Erik repeatedly stabbing the Russian’s prone body, he backs down, and tells his older brother where she is. They leave the town, Knut assuming she has been freed. These events occur chronologically at the start of the story, before the Spores come across the unusual town, but they are replayed again and again, with more information each time, exonerating or condemning the brothers with their revelations.

Sauna Movie aka FilthAnila is a thoughtful and perceptive filmmaker and he has chosen to combine several different motifs and genres here in a way that makes Sauna feel unique. The script is sparse and sometimes even obtuse in the information it presents. The real narrative and soul of the film are written on the images that fill it. The expressive and weather-beaten faces of the town inhabitants and Erik’s gaunt, haunted visage  bear testament to the effect the war has had on this place.

Knut, embodying the character of exploration and philosophy is fresh faced and unscathed by the darkness his brother has seen. The older man wears sin like a yoke and burden, weighed down by his deeds, and though Anila visualizes Erik as a savage warrior, the lost eyes and tight-lipped grimace suggest he’s fighting an internal war he is losing.

The landscape is gray and dreary; thickets and brambles and swamps full of foul black ink crowd the de-saturated forest. The village is little more than a smoked-out husk where pristine inhabitants lost in time march back and forth, vexing the brothers with their unnatural behavior. Knut comments early on “Have you ever seen peasants so clean?” The dark interiors of the cellars, saunas, and huts are lit with warm candle light and represent the only solace in a land dying piece by piece.

And then there is the sauna. Geometrically hair-raising, it stands in the middle of the swamp as an  rectangular obelisk of austere white. Nothing lives in it’ immediate proximity. The vegetation is covered in a fearsome swamp slime. Erik is provoked by it, but also longs for it. Knut is being haunted by images of the young girl, her hands covering a face dripping in vile black ooze. The promise remains; cleansing of sins. Erik does not show it in his outward appearance, but he fears death and a final judgment. Inside the sauna might lie his one chance of standing before God with a clean slate. Knut wonders what is inside, and one of the townspeople suggests that “It may only look like a sauna because that is all God knows we would see.”

What happens inside the sauna, which brothers enter it, and how the events within relate to the rest of the film I will leave for you to discover. I will say now, don’t go in expecting significant answers to the film’s mostly straight-forward plot. The last third suggests that Sauna has secretly only been about the brothers and the mystery involving the town is merely a contraption to explore the movie’s supernatural side. The powerful imagery goes from oppressive to horrifying and finally downright nightmarish. There are exquisitely beautiful scenes that are played out over a moving and penetrating score in those final minutes that I won’t easily shake. Their meaning, however, is mostly obscure to me. They exist to emotionally charge the film’s theme but they do not help explain it or offer up assistance with the sin problem. We are left wondering what exactly the price of the characters’ atonement really is, but I like that Anila suggests that such a price is higher than we can well imagine.

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This is a movie that doesn’t have a single frame of contemporary sentiment floating about it. It is decidedly medieval in its thoughts, viewpoint and imagery. In some ways, I wish Sauna had pursued its intellectual and cerebral questions a bit further and employed the visuals to explore the intricacies of its moral headspace. Whereas Tarkovsky crafted long, often frustratingly sedate pieces of visual poetry that revealed complexity in simplicity, Sauna is only 84 minutes long and does not explore its ideas beyond a surface level that consists mostly of sights and sounds and atmosphere. Completely sensory, it doesn’t deliver the soul-searching it promises.

As an entertainment some will find it infuriatingly slow and plodding. As a historical drama and a horror film it doesn’t quite succeed either. But, can a film be worth seeing, recommendable, and even powerful as solely a visual experience? I think so, and Sauna is exactly that kind of movie. In a time when movies are full of wasted words, throwaway shots, and inconsequential effects comes this one, that lets nary a scene go by without planting some furtive, imaginative thought in the viewer’s head.

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Note: Due to a nasty flu-bug, I’m a day behind here. I’ll catch up tomorrow and I’ve resorted the titles slightly. The AMAD will march on and I’ll catch up on the other reviews I’ve got sitting around too.

Oct 7th– AMAD: Night of the Demon & AMAD: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark 

Oct 8th–AMAD: Kaidan

Oct 9th- AMAD: In A Spiral State

Oct 10th-AMAD: The Stepfather

Oct 11th: Infestation

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One Response to “AMAD-Horror Edition: Sauna”

  1. Xiphos October 6, 2009 at 9:43 pm #

    Blue filters and a dude with a broad sword, I’m in.

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