Sarajevo Review: Scary Mother (Ana Urushadze)

The competition program in Sarajevo is limited to regional cinema but their definition of the region is quite wide. Geographically speaking, the inclusion of Georgian cinema sticks out the most, yet it has nonetheless always had a home at the festival. It has been another great edition for Georgia. My Happy Family by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross (Heart of Sarajevo winners for In Bloom) played out of competition, while City of the Sun by Rati Oneli won the main prize in the documentary competition. After three consecutive wins for Turkey, Georgia was also the one to break that streak and win the Heart of Sarajevo for Best Film with Scary Mother.

The feature film debut of 27-year-old Ana Urushadze had its world premiere in Locarno, picking up the Best First Feature prize. Don’t let the unfortunate title deceive you – this is confident and original work. The film follows Manana, a middle-aged woman who is on the verge of finishing her novel when her family discovers that she has been writing an obscene text inspired by them. Manana is torn between her husband’s insistence that she write something else and a local bookstore owner’s conviction that she has created a masterpiece. But the men around her are mere sounding boards for Manana as she seems to find inspiration in increasingly bizarre ways.

Urushadze walks a thin line between indulging the protagonist’s creative mindset and sticking to the plotline. Even as the pace stumbles in the third act, she connects the dots by making it clear that there is no answer to the question whether Manana’s writing is actually quality work or just the vulgar fantasy of a disturbed woman. The juxtaposition of an intimate look at Manana’s mind against atmospheric and observant mise en scène is key in commanding tension and discomfort through the plot points. It is Nato Murvanidze’s lead performance, however, that brilliantly invokes a constant sense of fascination at the character’s uneasy intellect and unclear desires. Murvanidze understands that she can reveal Manana’s internal conflicts without answering any of the questions. It is a performance largely externalised at first glance, but this turns out to be only some sort of façade. To what extent, no one is really certain, especially not Manana herself.