AFI Fest 2023 Review: “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” Affords a Chance to Blow Off Some Steam

The image that opens “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” shouldn’t be considered a dangerous one, but it nonetheless feels daring as a nude woman clings a baby to her breast, cut off at the head so as not to see any expression, but simultaneously strong and vulnerable at the same time when there is both not a stitch of protection and nothing to hide. How one reacts will depend on conditioning – some are bound to regard the scene as immodest, but otherwise there could be nothing more natural and as director Anna Hints peers inside a retreat for a group of women in her native Estonia where it isn’t just the sweat bath that proves refreshing, but the conversation where every word seems to open up a little daylight in the dark steam room.

No names are given, but “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” forges an intimacy with its subjects that more specifics might distract from as the women in the sauna start to speak. When the setting itself so obviously implies seeking relief from exhaustion, not much more needs to be said as the conversation begins and it hardly feels like small talk in any sense of the term, though the intensity of the subject matter does ramp up from exchanges that are appropriately skin deep as thoughts are thrown around about being disassociated from one’s appearance, with the women describing how they’ve come to recognize what’s beautiful about one’s body isn’t necessarily what others would have them think, to eventually unburdening themselves of memories of pregnancies, disease, assaults and complicated relationships.

Scenes from outdoors suggests “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” takes place over a year as seasons change from winter to fall, with the woman that runs the forest retreat attentive to the surrounding environment as she is to her guests and one feels that they’re in similarly good hands as Hints guides audiences through rituals that may seem particular to the region — a salt rub is applied as a balm for evil here and a hole in the icy pond outside is cut open by the proprietor for something akin to a polar bear challenge — but the experiences described are universal. The film finds its shape as a feeling of self-acceptance begins to take over, not only when these women offer a safe environment to confide in one another, but in talking through events that they felt they had to endure alone, a confidence emerges in their voice from the comfort of understanding that they have company.

The cinematography from Ants Tammik is a constant source of revelation, with frames growing less obscure after disarming one of any superficial prejudices, and the film proves genuinely gripping when the shards of what feels broken as far as how these women fit into a society starts to be pieced together as they make connections with each other. “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” may be far from a relaxing watch, but it is an invigorating one when as with any good excursion, it has the ability to recalibrate one’s perspective upon their return.

“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” will open in limited release on November 24th.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.