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by Achmed Abdel-Salam

grade: 7

Smother has nothing to envy from past horror films and although it makes visions, hallucinations and perceptions its workhorse, it focuses mainly on the personal drama of the protagonist, classifying itself as a deep and never trivial feature film about parenthood. At the Diagonale’23.

Past returns

Past often makes itself felt in the present stronger than ever. This is something we are well aware of and which, even in cinema, has been the subject of every possible investigation. Director Achmed Abdel-Salam, who with his feature film Smother – premiered at the Diagonale’23 – has shown us how our parents and our past traumas can also have important consequences for our everyday life, knows this well.

Smother, then, is the story of Michaela (played by Cornelia Ivancan), a former alcoholic who, because of her problem, even risked killing her daughter Hanna in a car accident. The child, for her part, is unable to trust her mother completely after this episode. When she, together with her husband (Lukas Turtur) and her daughter return to her parents’ village on the occasion of her father’s funeral, she finally has the chance to spend a few days alone with Hanna, trying to heal their relationship. Yet, at the same time, strange incidents begin to occur and threaten the tranquillity of the two.

A complicated mother-daughter relationship. Mental illness that seems to make one lose control of every situation. A country house that seems completely isolated from the rest of the world. Immense fields of wheat in which it is very easy to get lost. Old drawings that suggest important past traumas. Photographs torn in half in which key characters are missing. In Smother, Achmed Abdel-Salam has skilfully deployed all these elements, playing on the viewer’s sensations and perceptions and allowing himself to be inspired by what has been made in the horror genre in the past, while also giving his feature film a distinct personality.

Michaela seems to constantly lose her mind. Her daughter, at the same time, while beginning to trust her mother again, is almost afraid of her when she sees the woman in crisis. And so, this complex and delicate relationship between the two protagonists is developed by the director in a never predictable or banal way within a feature film in which objects are often worth a thousand words, in which sounds – perceived at night, inside a dark house – play an equally central role, in which the influences of expressionist cinema, but also of contemporary authors who, in the meantime, have had enormous success all over the world, can be strongly felt (the very home of the two protagonists and the settings almost make us think, for example, of the excellent Goodnight Mommy, directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala in 2014).

In any case, Smother has nothing to envy from what has been made in the past and although it makes visions, hallucinations and perceptions its warhorse, it focuses mainly on the personal drama of the protagonist, classifying itself as a deep and never trivial feature about parenthood, about the difficulty of healing old wounds, about the importance of memory. In addition, the always excellent performances by Inge Maux and Heinz Trixner as two neighbours provide welcome added value.

Original title: Heimsuchung
Directed by: Achmed Abdel-Salam
Country/year: Austria / 2023
Running time: 90’
Genre: horror
Cast: Cornelia Ivancan, Lola Herbst, Lukas Turtur, Heinz Trixner, Inge Maux, Franziska Rieck, Gisela Salcher, Christoph F. Krutzler, Iva Höpperger, Gerald Walsberger, Tina Haller, Christian Dungl, Felix Stichmann
Screenplay: Achmed Abdel-Salam
Cinematography: Alexander Dirninger
Produced by: Glitter and Doom, Prisma Film- und Fernsehproduktion GmbH

Info: the page of Smother on the website of the Diagonale; the page of Smother on iMDb; the page of Smother on the website of the Austrian Film Commission