The film starts with a present-day setup with a little girl picking mushrooms in a forest and shifts into flashback for the lion’s share of the story. The setup at the start of the film at first seems kind of meaningless and thrown in just for ease of setting up the tale. However, this is not the case but understanding it in any meaningful way doesn’t really come until you’ve wandered through the twist and turns of the story and ended up at the finale. It is clever but not cute and ties the whole thing up in a dark little bow. This film sits in league with its regional cousins Rare Exports, Thale and Troll Hunter but that trio of films tend to skirt the darkness and ugliness of ‘real’ fairy tales where Sennentuntschi dives into it headlong.
The story centers around a small Swiss village and the tragic suicide of a clergy member at the onset of the story. This establishes the strength of the church in this community as it seems like nearly every town citizen is there for the processional and funeral soon thereafter. This element is fascinating because some irregularities with Catholic doctrine come into play in the most casual of ways. You almost immediately forget but it is worth nothing the way in which the suicide victim is treated and buried. During the walk back to the church after the burial, the local town constable Reusch (Nicolas Ofczarek) notices a feral looking woman following behind. She is muddied and mute and wrapped in a barn-type blanket. The sight of her (played beautifully by Kiss Of The Damned’s Roxane Mesquida) puts the townsfolk on edge and it is quickly thought she might be some kind of witch or threat – enhanced by fear mongering on the part of Ueli Jäggi as the head of the church. It becomes immediately apparent that the only person standing by her side is Reusch and he doesn’t seem like the sharpest tool in the shed either so we don’t know what to think at this stage.
The story then shifts into the mountains and introduces us to Erwin (Andrea Zogg) and Albert (Joel Basman) a father and son who raise goats, produce illegal absinthe and generally seem to live a very agrarian life outside of town. Erwin meets up with a traveling man, Martin (Carlos Leal – a great performance) and brings him to the farm as a ‘volunteer’ to help with work. Martin seems to have something in his past worth running away from but that doesn’t come into focus until later. Initially you’re just left wondering why a slick-looking fellow would venture out into the sticks they way he is. Once all three are at the ‘ranch’ it becomes glaringly apparent that Erwin is a louse: a drunk, mean bear of a man who barks orders and insults at his slow but sweet song Albert as he stumbles through his work. During a night of drinking, Erwin tells Martin a story about three men who create a woman out of a broom and cloth and straw, chant some words and she comes to life. Drunk and hallucinating, they try the same trick later in the night….which just so happens to coincide with Roxane Mesquida’s character becoming misplaced after an incident in town and showing up at the farm. Black magic or coincidence or both?
Once she arrives (and in rags like the doll they made and not the lovely dress she had in town, no less) things get unpleasant in a hurry as these men (one slow, one mean and belligerent and one clearly hiding something) now have the presence of a mysterious woman in their midst and things breakdown into some pretty unsettling sequences of humiliation and drunken abuse and rape. What is unique about this, however, is that it does not feel like many films with this as a plot point (The Woman and Dead Girl come to mind along with Last House On The Left among many others) because instead of disgust or terror, the viewer feels more confusion than anything. She seems almost nonplussed after each act and doesn’t try to run away or fight back. Initially anyway. The point I’m making is that while sexual assault is deplorable and ugly, its presence in this story feels very different from many other horror films and used in a different way.
This carries on into the next day and Martin is overcome with remorse about the situation and tries to help her escape. Meanwhile in town, Reusch is trying to figure out where she went and add up all the pieces as to why she looks like someone in one of the pictures taken well before she ever could have been born. Further, his ex-girlfriend (married to the mayor) has suddenly lost her pregnancy seemingly after a run-in with the mystery woman before she disappeared. Also, there is the matter of religious icons (like the cross) having an effect on her and also the second half of the story Erwin tells about the three men and the fates they suffer at the hands of their broom woman come-to-life, the Sennentuntschi.
There are even more things going on than just that quick rush-by but honestly it is best if you just take it all in as it comes. The film doesn’t really kick into high gear until about the hour mark (the film runs nearly two hours) but when it does you best served just trying to keep up in real-time and try not to think too far ahead. The entire second half of the film is a tense and thrilling unraveling of a mystery that keeps you guessing and even when a touch too much exposition comes into play, you are still kept in the dark. If this sounds like it might be a little confusing at times, it is, but not by accident. A lesser film would just flat not make sense but in the case of Sennentuntschi, there is a method to the madness. There is a grinning cleverness to the bloody, unpleasant but Grimm Fairy Tale-way that it all comes together and maybe the sometimes scattershot way in which things happen adds to that feel; it may not sit well for some.
The film is crafted beautifully and takes full advantage of the surroundings in both sweeping wide shots and more claustrophobic interiors in the ranching shack, the church, the police station etc. The color palette of the film is quite striking too: blues and greys that feel lifelike as opposed to washed out. It really engages the eye and stays uniform throughout to the point where you could draw inferences about meaning, location, threat, safety etc by the associative colors. The score is a bit of a mystery to me: at times the swelling strings and tense darting around of the music fit perfectly into the film; other times it makes it feel static and overbearing. A more minimalist approach with the score at certain points would probably punctuate the louder moments better but it never grates.
All in all, Sennentuntschi is a unique, creative, beautiful and dark-hearted fable about base desires and the consequences of both noble and less-than-noble intentions. This is folklore in its truer, most grisly form but is also about care for others. Nothing is clean-cut, nothing is simple but it all works really well.