Scary Mother (Sashishi deda)
Georgia (2017) Dir. Ana Urushadze
Are writers misunderstood? Is their ability to create people, places, and situations that are wondrously fantastic out of thin air or to allegorise a real event or story into a piece of fiction a sign of inventive genius or a twisted psyche? And why are expressive women writers such a threat?
50 year-old housewife and mother of three Manana (Nato Murvanidze) has decided to pursue her dream of being a writer, secluding herself from her family in the bedroom to write a novel. Husband Anri (Dimitri Tatishvili) sleeps on the sofa in support, whilst daughter Dea (Anastasia Chanturaia) and her younger brothers openly lament “missing” their mother.
Manana’s biggest supporter is stationary storeowner Nukri (Ramaz Ioseliani), the only person to have read the manuscript, declaring it a masterpiece. He encourages Manana to read it to her family, but Anri is angry and appalled at its autobiographical nature and erotic content. Manana insists it is complete fiction but Anri forbids her from finishing the book. In her defiance, Manana’s behaviour begins to change for the worse.
In 2013, Georgian director Zaza Urushadze broke through on the international stage with his anti-war polemic Tangerines; four years later, his daughter Ana follows in his footsteps with this dark, probing debut that isn’t the psychological horror film some – myself included – was expecting, but it is a curious film nonetheless. Despite only being 27 years old at the time, Urushadze shows incredible maturity and subtlety in this veiled attack on the patriarchy.
Usually when films are made about writers, they are middle-aged males whose writer’s block is cleared by either a female muse or an epiphany that puts their libido in its place. Conversely, middle-aged women in cinema are either slaves to domesticity or sexually repressed frumps dumped by the wayside. Scary Mother subverts both of these tropes by presenting us with a middle-aged female writer trapped by her own intellectual and emotional search for creative freedom of expression.
Post-Soviet Georgia is not a particularly effervescent setting for this story and nor should it be as Manana needs to have something to escape from, but the framing of Tbilisi as a dour, grey suburban backdrop loosely implies a form of political rhetoric is forthcoming which actually never materialises. Instead, it is a visual motif to underscore the need for a vivid imagination when one’s day involves spending long days alone as a housewife in a tiny flat.
The reading of the story to the family is an uncomfortable scene, yet is also one of the most affecting moments in the film. Manana is clearly nervous and when she starts reading, she bolts through the recital at high speed, barely pausing for breath, her voice flat and monotonous with the occasional anxious tremble. This lack of inflection, pacing, and nuance renders her words as an outpouring of stream-of consciousness vitriol and self-loathing – no wonder Anri was miffed.
Yet the real catalyst for Manana moving out was a dream she had in which she saw herself turn into a creature of Filipino mythology called a Manananggal. The beast is torn into two halves, a human half and a monstrous half that feasts on human babies and makes a clicking noise when it is on the hunt. Anri thinks Manana has finally flipped after already being concerned how she let her appearance suffer and questioning her quirk of writing notes on her arms.
From here the story starts to get a bit meta, as not only does Manana start to display the occasional characteristics of her fictional protagonist but when Nukri’s secrecy peaks Manana’s interest and she starts following him around, Urushadze introduces a clicking noise to the sparse atmospheric soundtrack. There is a more convoluted and ultimately darker subplot bubbling with Manana’s translator father Jarji (Avtandil Makharadze) who has been translating his daughter’s book without realising she wrote it, and has become obsessed with this profound yet disturbing text.
Earlier, I mentioned how the film’s title and plot summary suggested a psychological drama/horror was being offered but not delivered. This is true even with Manana’s slow descent into a personality crisis but there is nothing creepy or terrifying about it. This doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of discomfort and tragedy befalls one character, but this is more of an arty drama with an abstruse way of addressing a personal subject.
Whilst it won’t be immediate or even obvious to some, the subtext – I believe – is dealing with the freedom of women in a patriarchy, in this case in the arts, that isn’t limited to them no being chained to the kitchen sink like in other cultures. Urushadze seems to be highlighting the double standard of what is acceptable for men to do that women can’t, using the writing of challenging and explicit fiction as an example.
Not only that but the symbolism of the monster Manana dreams of becoming is related to the woman in her novel, the one who slept with her neighbour and committed other frowned upon deeds. If this woman were to exist she would be a terror to all men, yet she is a free woman in the truest sense.; with Manana now free from the family home to work in he own space, could she become this “monster” of a woman too?
Confusing it might be for some of us, but there is no question the lead performance from Nato Murvanidze as Manana is powerfully compelling. Her unassuming looks disguise a versatile actress, taking Manana from a stone-faced model of unrest, nerves, and lacking in self-confidence to a mysterious force of dark energy controlled by her own terms. The rest of the cast are also excellent.
Smarter people than me can debate whether Scary Mother is a stealth feminist thesis or mere arthouse folly, either way, it is an assured, intelligent, well-made, and strikingly composed debut for Ana Urushadze if a little dense in its intentions for my liking.