‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’ Review: Women, Uninterrupted

In Estonia, the smoke sauna is an 800-year-old tradition carried out with regularity — to this day — by the Voro community in the southeastern part of the country.

Singled out by UNESCO as one of the world’s great cultural heritages (like the baguette in France or shadow puppetry in China), the Estonian practice begets a sweaty purification process — one that’s revealed to be more than skin deep in Anna Hints’s bewitching documentary, “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood.”

Hints, whose grandmother introduced her to the smoke-sauna ritual, uses the documentary to speak volumes about what it means to be a woman, even as the focus remains fixed on a single location: a cramped sauna-cabin located in a forest.

Inside the womblike sauna, Hints simply lets the women, who are primarily middle-aged and older, speak freely among themselves, just as they’re accustomed to doing; she doesn’t bother with title cards or other forms of contextualization. The women talk about their bodies, their relationships with men and the difficulties of growing up in a patriarchal society. One woman, her face obscured by her arm as she lies on the sauna bench, shares a horrific story about being raped as a teenager. The others listen attentively, providing the speaker with the compassionate audience she never had in her youth.

Most of the subjects have chosen to remain anonymous, so Hints and the cinematographer Ants Tammik film the nude women from the neck down or using disembodied close-ups. Contrary to what one might expect, the focus on bare chests, perspiring backs and stretches of glistening skin doesn’t feel provocative.

Instead, these raw bodies exhibit an organic kind of beauty, real and uninhibited as they commune with the swirling smoke from burning wood and the clouds of steam produced by moistened rocks. It’s no wonder the women tend to open up under these sweltering conditions. To feel fully aware of one’s own body is to acknowledge its scars, too.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
Not rated. In Estonian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. In theaters.

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