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Scary Mother: An insightful look at the horrors of the artistic process

Georgian director Ana Urushadze’s debut feature, Scary Mother (2017), is the story of a housewife with a pent-up desire to write, and her slow descent into chaos as she pursues her secret passion. The film familiarizes us with the conventional environment of the stable life the protagonist, Manana (Nato Murvanidze), leads, before plunging into its central conflict.

Looking anxious and almost guilty, Manana reads a few pages from the book she had been working on to her husband, Anri (Dimitri Tatishvili), and their children, and in doing so she reveals an aspect of her character that she had kept carefully concealed for most of her life. Her prose is dark, gruesomely detailed and, at times, sexually explicit, blending aspects of her day-to-day life with fantastical elements. The passages she narrates prompt expressions of shock and horror on her family’s faces, and Anri grows incensed as she tries desperately to distance herself from the character in her book, insisting her work is not autobiographical.

Scary Mother derives most of its strength from its well-crafted dialogue, which treats literary writing as a tool as well as the subject of the film. This is apparent on several occasions, such as the scene in which Manana lucidly recounts a nightmare to her husband. She appears every bit the writer as she describes in rich and vivid detail her transformation into the monster within her novel, the Manananggal, a female demon in Filipino mythology that feeds on newborn children. Coupled with Murvanidze’s stunning performance, the script paints a terrifying image using words alone, negating the need for a visually depicted dream sequence. Urushadze mentions in an interview with film magazine Variety that she was aided in this endeavor by her sister, an author, who wrote the passages Manana reads from her book throughout the film.

In this inventive scene Manana seems to detach from reality, marking the start of her character’s transformational journey as she grows to identify with the horrid creature in her novel. The Manananggal’s role as the main character in her work is set up as a response to the collision of her vivid imagination with the grounding responsibilities of her everyday life and the reality of her conservative surroundings. For a time, the viewer is led to believe that the film is going to take a turn into the realm of fantasy with a physical depiction of Manana morphing into the Manananggal, but it continues to rely on evocative descriptions rather than images, a fitting choice that preserves the disturbing realist feel that permeates the film. 

Scary Mother inhabits the grey space between fiction and reality throughout its 107-minute runtime, exploring the chaos that is wrought when the fine lines between them gradually begin to blur. Even though her family rejects what they consider her “offensive” writing, Nukri (Ramaz Ioseliani), the owner of the stationery store across the street and Manana’s confidante, assures her that it’s genius. It is to his store that she escapes in an attempt to finalize her book after her husband burns her manuscript, and her choice to pursue her passion over everything else is reflected in the stark contrast between the red room she occupies there and the muted hues of her family house.

Manana’s father, Jarji (Avtandil Makharadze)—who is translating the book into English without knowing the writer’s identity—also proclaims her work a masterpiece. It is her interactions with him that prompt her to revisit childhood traumas, confront her demons and seek the closure she desperately needs: an ending for her book, and, in the process, liberation from her own troubled, and divided life.

Inverted camera angles, an eerie, chilling soundtrack and Murvanidze’s expressive face all contribute to a realistic portrayal of the conflict Manana faces, and the subsequent state of dysfunction that ensues. It is her complexity that makes the story so appealing, compelling the audience to peel back her many layers to reach the suppressed woman within and uncover the reasons behind her torment. The integrity with which the character of Manana is written and acted is a key element throughout the entire film, breathing life into all its other components.

With its potent, effective use of symbolism to portray the results of delayed self-realization, Scary Mother is an introspective look at the artistic process, and the overwhelming power that imagination can possess. It is also a cautionary tale, of sorts, about the tragic consequences of repressed creative energy. 

Hessen Hossam