For the past two weeks, we here at Wolfbane Blooms have been surviving and thriving on a steady diet of brand-new movies and mayhem, courtesy of Fantasia 2019. It’s been a bangin’ year so far, with most everything we’ve been able to screen comfortably falling somewhere between hey, that was pretty alright and wow, what an absolute knock-out.
Tonight, on day 11, a film called Sator made its world premiere, and I’ll be honest with you: It kind of threw off my groove re: that pretty little enjoyment spectrum above. But before you prepare yourself for an all-out take-down, let me clarify that while I personally didn’t care for Sator, it wasn’t a bad film by any means. In fact, there were some really well-done flourishes, and I believe that there’s absolutely an audience for Sator. It doesn’t include me, but they’re out there.
Sator is a very personal movie for its creator, Jordan Graham. Not only did he write/direct, but he really did everything behind the camera during the shoot and then all of the film’s post-production work as well. And not only that, but the story was inspired by/loosely based on his family and his late grandmother, who is also one of the few stars of the film.
The story follows a pair of brothers—one more specifically than the other—who live out in the eerily quiet woods. They don’t live together, but living in the woods seems to be a family thing. Our guys are kind of trying to figure out how their late grandfather died and what’s up with their grandmother, who hears a voice that’s allegedly named Sator. In the movie, it’s a sort of woodsy spiritual entity that has been following and influencing their whole family for some time.
As Graham has explained in his synopsis of the plot, Sator is actually a very real character in his real life. His grandmother, the one featured, did hear a voice her entire life, she did call it Sator, and she wasn’t alone in hearing it—multiple generations of the Graham family have reported hearing voices. Perhaps it’s mental illness, perhaps it’s supernatural, perhaps it’s some inexplicable symptom of existence we humans hardly understand; whatever the case, it’s the reality this fiction was born of.
The fact that this concept was so real to Graham and that he’s surely spent lots of time trying to figure it out (the movie alone took five years to make) is clearly reflected in Sator’s protagonist, and though that realness didn’t do much of anything for me, it’s the kind of thing that’ll affect the right person.
I assume that a lot of the scenes in which his grandmother is discussing Sator were not scripted, for example, and while it’s very authentic-feeling and raw on the one hand, it’s an odd choice on the other—most importantly, because these scenes are clearly the pillars around which the rest of the film is built. Ultimately, it’s kind of why Sator didn’t really come together for me—because it felt like the real existence of the phenomenon/voice thing was more important to the film than the story that was supposed to have developed out of it.
But here’s the deal: Sator is an experimental arthouse flick, through and through. That’s what I’m describing here. It’s a deeply personal film with a story ultra-focused on concept and atmosphere. It’s really no wonder that I didn’t care for it; these kinds of movies are absolutely none of my business.
However, logically, I’ve reasoned that if I was a fundamentally different person who did like these kinds of things, I might like this one. Not only do I respect Jordan Graham as a filmmaker simply for making every single part of his film happen (something I endlessly praised his festival mates the Adams Family for), but I also admire how well he executed what he did do. There were so many beautiful shots that framed the breathtaking forest so well, for example, demonstrating a keen ability to translate vast, layered environments to the screen.
The opening sequence was really well-done, and I absolutely loved his grandmother’s handwritten titles. The end of the film also had a horrorish sequence that featured a lot of really engaging imagery; I only wish there had been more of it.
In all, Sator’s story is really a microcosm of exactly what the film itself is: a grandson trying to figure out what’s happening/has happened to his grandmother, to his family. It’s an arthouse film that’s really well-shot, very slow, and definitely not for me, but probably exactly right for someone.