Mara Movie Review
Written by Heidi Palazzo
Released by Sony Pictures
Written and directed by Aleksey Kazakov
2020, 93 minutes, Not Yet Rated
Grimmfest UK Premiere on 3rd April 2021
Semyon Serzin as Andrey
Marina Vasileva as Olya
Aleksandra Revenko as Mara
We have seen the act of memory removal in films and television shows many times over the years (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the ‘Tabula Rasa’ episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to name a few), and characters still have not yet realised this is a disastrous approach to solving problems. Alexey Kazakov’s stylish directorial debut, Mara (also known as Pobochnyi effekt or Side Effect), is yet another addition to the morally questionable collection.
Andrey (Semyon Serzin) seeks the assistance of supposed healer and psychic, Mara (played with towering, intimidating force by Aleksandra Revenko), after a traumatic incident dissolves his relationship with his wife, Olya (Marina Vasileva). He wants her back, and no amount of therapy could ever be as effective as electing to erase her mind of the incident. Mara agrees to help, and through her own, unique brand of healing, so begins the process of forgetting. But, given this is both a horror movie and a stupid idea, evil things start happening – made worse by Mara’s month-long, uncontactable absence, where she requests that Andrey care for her magic mushrooms. This is the first sign that we are dealing with a horror that dips into psychedelic realms and, true to form, Mara takes viewers on an insane trip.
One of the first things to capture my attention is the inspiration drawn from ‘70s horror and giallo cinema. All the usual suspects in the subgenre are at play here, with clever camerawork, unsettling musical arrangements, lavish set designs, and lighting that alternates between moody and electric. Adding to this was the English dub attached to my copy, and though disliked initially, I learned to embrace it as another component of the authentic giallo experience.
I will not delve too deeply into what this movie offers. Part of the appeal and surprise is contained in the ways Mara places the audience firmly in Andrey and Olya’s shoes to varying degrees, with the latter’s experiences and performance particularly heartbreaking and worthy of discussion. Despite the experimentation and fusion of horror’s subgenres (with even body horror making a brief, but memorable appearance in one of the film’s most mind-bending scenes), the presentation of grief, loss and trauma through her eyes hits the most effective, horrific beats due to the incredibly real depiction of sexual violence and the impact it can have on a person’s psyche. This is worsened by her position as a woman at the mercy of Andrey’s actions and makes him a despicable character to such a degree you are secretly cheering for Mara’s evil intentions and magic mushrooms.
One of my only gripes with the movie is around the halfway point, where the tonal shift from slow-burning dread to complete psychedelic insanity stumbles slightly, resulting in its focus drifting. This is short-lived however, due to one of the film’s most beautifully crafted scenes, full of rich lighting and exquisite music that successfully pulls the viewer back into its dreamscape, before plunging into the depths of Hell by Andrey’s side.
I watched this film knowing nothing outside of what the trailer showed, and I am glad that was the case. I was (wrongly) expecting the standard demonic possession or witchcraft fare with doses of well-handled atmosphere. The second part is certainly true, but what I ended up watching is an extremely entertaining and intoxicating sequence of events that successfully melted portions of my brain. Ultimately, Mara is a tale about the position of women when exposed to the mistakes of men, with the two female leads undergoing different journeys bound together by similar threads. There are clearly visible lessons and an important social commentary residing beneath the twisted layers.
Can people just please stop thinking fiddling with memories will lead to good things instead of opening a gateway into monumental disaster? It’s all I ask.
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