Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is a soldier in an eastern European country at war, although we are not told where. He furiously digs through the earth in the woods, but we don’t know why. He neglects his post as a border patrol officer. His posting is safe, but it is isolated. The nearest town is two days walk away and he hasn’t seen anyone in a long time. In the hole, he finds a small stone figure. An amulet.
He takes aim on a woman running towards him. She falls.
Later, Tomaz is living in a foreign city. He is homeless, unemployed, abused by the xenophobic locals. Spending his days trying to scrape any work he can from vans picking people up at the side of the road. He binds his hands to sleep, a punishment for his sins or a comforting crutch to combat his trauma? That trauma is revisited through the narrative, as events remind him of things he did while serving. From a sentry box to another kind of trapped, limited existence.
After a fire destroys most of his belongings and leaves him walking the streets dazed and injured, he is found by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) who takes him to hospital, and then to a dilapidated house where he is encouraged to stay with Magda (Carla Juri) and her disabled mother (Anah Ruddin) in exchange for helping with the upkeep.
They converse in English, suggesting that although they are all in a foreign land together they are also foreigners to each other. All fish out of water and dealing with memories of home that leave them traumatised and broken. Magda spends her life working tirelessly as though she is atoning for something. She takes abuse from her mother, cleaning her bloody sheets by hand and battering the dirt from them in soapy water in the garden. She cooks rich meals for Tomaz but never seems to eat them herself. He says “I won’t go where I’m not welcome,” but it seems he isn’t really welcome anywhere, so he stays, thinking he can maybe be a hero for someone, finally.
The house feels trapped in the past, there is no electricity, the water is dark and brown, a sickness lurking not just in the attic, but in the walls and pipes. The house itself bleeds, cracks and crumbles. Hidden symbols beneath the plaster, creeping mould as dread seeps into every inch of it. The chilling sickness of the house descends and grows as Tomaz and Magda are drawn together and are entangled in the mysteries hiding behind the attic door. Brief moments of levity edge Magda towards manic happiness before they are dragged back to reality.
Romola Garai directs and writes her first feature film (she previously directed the short film Scrubber in 2012). Her influences are clear, as bangs on the wall, a grey aesthetic, feminine curses and the monsters manifested by them are all familiar horror tropes. The film takes its time to tell its story, adding to the impact of those moments when they happen. They are subtly used here to hint at coming moments of absolute abject horror. The abject femininity inherent in these stories is treated differently here in a woman’s creative hands. It is not shamed or shied away from. It is addressed in grotesque detail, as the power dynamic shifts from male to female. Masculinity is distorted, corrupted. As birth leads to death, death to life, war to peace, victim to victor. Abjection intertwines with sacred and ancient power.
This is a refreshingly modern, ancient, horror film, with the marks of its ancestors written into it like the stains on the walls of the house. Romola Garai is one to watch.
Amulet is released in US theatres and on demand July 24th.