Sunday, May 20, 2012
Film Review: Sauna (2008)
Starring: Ville Virtanen
Synopsis:As a 25-year war between Russia and Sweden concludes, two brothers who are part of an effort to outline new border accords become undone by their actions, and their mistreatment of a young woman during their journey.
My thoughts: Sauna was a real treat. The Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) here in Brisbane was running a program of Scandinavian cinema a few months ago, with a regular weekly horror film as a feature. Most of the movies in the program we had already heard of and many we had already seen (TrollHunter, Anti-Christ, Let the Right One In), but Sauna was something which had slipped complete under our radar. Sometimes God just throws you one...
The story follows two brothers in 1595 tasked with the job of marking the official borders between Sweden and Russia after a 25-year long war. The youngest brother Knut is an academic who has been sheltered from the worst of the war, while his near-sighted brother Eerik has been dehumanised as a result of a lifetime as a soldier. When they and their Russian counterparts discover a village on the border that shouldn't be there, the sins of the past catch up to haunt them. The sauna in Sauna is a creepy looking concrete shed in a swamp outside the mysterious village where it is said that you can wash your soul clean.
Much like the other films in the GoMA program, Sauna is a horror film with an arthouse slant. And if you've read many of the other reviews Kayleigh and I have written, you'll know that these are generally the stories which get us excited. It's a slow-burn movie which isn't to everyone's tastes. Reading some of the IMDB reviews and comments (I know, I know... I was asking for trouble), the most frequent criticism is that it wasn't scary enough. While being 'scary' is a fine pursuit for a supernatural horror story, it's not the genre's most interesting convention. Supernatural horror at its best explores the darkest element of human nature without being constrained by reality. It manifests the dark and unnatural itches that lie in our collective unconsciousness, brings them to the surface and gives them a face. And Sauna did this about as well as any film I've seen in recent memory.
Sauna had some great imagery. The juxtaposition of the rigid, rectangular sauna sitting in the stagnant water of the swamp makes a powerful symbol. The weeping apparition that stalks Knut across the landscape is terrifying in broad daylight, and looks as if it has been influenced by style of ghost in J-Horror cinema. Just as the ghost cannot look at Knut (it keeps its face buried in its hands), Knut cannot face his own sins.
But in the end, it is the relationship between the brothers which makes the film interesting and beautifully tragic. Eerik, a man who keeps his sins numbered and has long since abandoned any hope of personal redemption tries to rescue his brother from the destruction his soul has suffered. Knut, who is naive to the horrors of war and is riddled with guilt over an incident involving a young woman in the brothers' travels, learns a valuable lesson about wiping clean sin.
I'm guessing that there is a lot of Finnish mythology which I'm not familiar with, so I there may be a lot I've missed as well. But overall I found Sauna to be beautiful film (in a Goya-esque kind of way) and recommend that if you can find it, you should see it.
4.5 out of 5