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(CINEUROPA) DIAGONALE 2023 Review: Smother

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Since the mid-2010s, there has been a noticeable trend in Austrian cinema. So-called “elevated genre films” that merge genre (usually horror) topics and plot points with an artistic approach are becoming more and more present in the context of national cinema. This year’s edition of the Diagonale included three films that could be classified as such in the feature competition programme. While Peter Hengl’s Family Dinner [+] and Johannes Grenzfurthner’s Razzennest (both from 2022) have already had some festival exposure, Achmed Abdel-Salam’s feature debut, Smother (originally titled Heimsuchung), started its festival run with a premiere at the Austrian national film festival.

Michaela (Cornelia Ivancan, glimpsed in Simon Curtis’s Woman in Gold [+]) is a recovering alcoholic who, after causing a car accident, has lost the trust of her partner Alex (Lukas Turtur) and their daughter Hanna (newcomer Lola Herbst). When Michaela’s estranged father dies, she inherits his house (and her childhood home) on the edge of a forest somewhere in the countryside. The project of cleaning and tidying it up for sale should serve as a chance for Michaela and Hanna to patch up their relationship, but a series of strange little incidents, Hanna’s sleepwalking, Michaela’s visions and nightmares, as well as gossip in the village, slowly reveal the unresolved family history that our protagonist had with her mother (Franziska Rieck), who committed suicide after trying to harm her own daughter. Can Michaela stay sober and, more importantly, is the evil that runs through her family hereditary?

Abdel-Salam started his career as an actor in adverts and shorts, after which he studied dramaturgy and scriptwriting, finally turning to filmmaking. In his debut feature, he shows a considerable knowledge of a number of aspects of the filmmaking process. Smother is carefully written and directed, with the helmer showing a clear knack for genre. Abdel-Salam demonstrates exceptional skill in his treatment of genre-movie tropes, from the crumbling, possibly haunted house, through the problematic relationships within the family spanning at least three generations, to the placement and execution of jump scares and an infusion of Japanese turn-of-the-millennium horror style, with several beautiful nods to The Ring trilogy.

Seen in almost every scene, Cornelia Ivancan is entirely convincing as the troubled and potentially deranged Michaela, channelling the inner turmoil that is about to burst out of her, but the chemistry she shares with child actress Lola Herbst, who plays her slightly spoiled daughter, is the most compelling part of her performance. The actors in bit roles as characters who more or less provide some context to Michaela’s pain are also pretty much spot on under Abdel-Salam’s guidance.

On the technical level, some aspects fare better than others. Daniel Helmer’s eerie score with percussive elements ramps up the tension in this slow-burner, while the measured editing by Matthias Writze establishes and keeps up the pace. On the other hand, Alexander Dirninger’s camerawork, in highly natural colours, seems a bit bland for most of the film, but this pattern tends to get broken in some of the scenes set in the realms of dreams, nightmares and memories, which makes sense, but is also a tad too obvious. All things considered, though, Smother is a sure-handed debut and a meaningful contribution to Austrian genre cinema.

Smother is an Austrian production staged by Glitter and Doom and Prisma Film. Picture Tree International handles the international sales.

CINEUROPA

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