Smoke Sauna Sisterhood movie review (2023)

Cinematographer Ants Tammik gives the interior of the small wooden building surrounded by trees a gentle, heavenly glow. The women are comfortably nude. We only seldom see a face. Most of the film is exquisitely composed of images of body parts, sometimes an arm or breasts, sometimes a row of knees, all illuminated like Old Master paintings to allow us to appreciate the quiet intimacy and profound beauty of human bodies.

While they talk about the pressure from their family and the expectations of society to appear impossibly slim, “pure,” and beautiful, in this place, with each other, they are completely comfortable in their bodies. They tend to each other, whisking with branches and rubbing salt scrubs on the skin. In one moment, as one of the women tells the harrowing story of being raped when she was a teenager, while she covers her face with her arm, her head is resting on the lap of another woman, who strokes her hair as she sobs. That woman’s other hand is gently held by the woman on her other side.

In the lush summer, a woman gathers the branches that will be used, fresh or dried, to whisk their skin. In the winter, the cabin and surrounding area are covered with thick snow that makes it look so timeless we imagine Hansel and Gretel may be wandering through. A woman is out on the frozen lake, smashing through the thick coating of ice over and over with a shovel. Later, the naked women stream out of the smokehouse sauna, their bare feet hopping through the snow to get to the hole in the ice and climb into the freezing water up to their shoulders, laughing and splashing it on their faces.

The women talk. And they listen. More often, when we do see a face, it is the listener, not the speaker. There are almost no interruptions. No questions, not even a “Yes, tell me more.” There is no judgment. There is no advice. Instead, there is time. There is patience. There is safety. And there is music, sometimes with the women using their bodies for percussion, singing about being mighty, chanting about sweating out all pain and fear. Their easy laughter reflects their ease and sense of connection.

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