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NIFFF 2022

Review: Family Dinner

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- Austrian director Peter Hengl's feature-film debut flirts with horror by telling the story of a family dinner that turns into a ritual banquet

Review: Family Dinner
Nina Katlein in Family Dinner

Told from the perspective of Simi (Nina Katlein), a 15-year-old girl tormented by her weight who, during the Easter holidays, goes to the home of her aunt Claudia (played by Pia Hierzegger), a renowned nutritionist, Peter Hengl’s Family Dinner, world-premiered at Sundance and in International Competition at the NIFFF, reveals her secrets very gradually until the final conclusion.

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Attracted by her famous aunt whose books on healthy eating have become bestsellers, Simi decides to travel to her home to ask her to help her lose the unwanted kilos that have been nagging at her. If her plan was supposed to boil down to a pleasant family holiday, something strange seems to be looming on the horizon as soon as she arrives. Beginning with Claudia, who gives her a lukewarm welcome, to say the least, to the encounter with her creepy cousin Filipp (Alexander Sladek) with whom she has to share a room, not forgetting the latter's stepfather, Stefan (Michael Pink), who turns out to be strangely (too) affectionate, everyone seems to behave strangely, as if they were acting out a grotesque comedy in front of each other. Filipp, the prodigal son who, almost an adult, still lets his mother cut his food and who, once alone with Simi, treats her with contemptuous aggression, Stefan who eats in secret so as not to upset his companion's rituals, and Claudia who, in a whirlwind of passive aggression, treats her niece as both disciple and enemy, all seem to be hiding a secret, but which one? Like any self-respecting horror film, the truth is obviously far more terrible than Simi can imagine.

The protagonist's innocence (the only point of view we have access to), the discomfort she feels when confronted with a family that is unsettling to say the least, and at the same time the will she shows in wanting to shed the extra kilos are palpable and create an atmosphere of suspicion that only amplifies. The more Holy Sunday approaches (the film is divided into days, from Monday to Easter Sunday), the more the atmosphere tenses up and the alarm bells multiply: Simi's mobile phone mysteriously disappears, the protagonist finds documentation of ancestral cannibalistic rituals in her aunt's wardrobe, Filipp reveals that his mother psychologically mistreats him, preventing him from making friends, etc. What distinguishes Family Dinner from other genre films based on family dysfunction is the emphasis it places on nutrition as a source of both joy and martyrdom, as well as on ritualisation, and the (Eucharistic) mysticism that seeps out of the act of eating, transforming food into true spiritual nourishment.

Simi would like to find out what really lies behind the everyday life of a seemingly (almost) normal family, but does not dare for fear that the truth could be too hard to bear. The protagonist will then move at a plodding pace for fear of losing the only hope she has left to shed the kilos she so detests. Without ever turning into a body positivist manifesto, Family Dinner reminds us, on the contrary, what food means beyond the question of weight, how fanaticism can creep in even in the mind of a seemingly unceremonious nutritionist.

Enigmatic almost until the final scene, Family Dinner progresses slowly, leaving us time to savour every detail until we hardly recognise any flavour, lost in the claustrophobic maze of a horror house.

Family Dinner was produced by Capra Filmproduktion (Austria) and sold internationally by WTFilms.

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(Translated from Italian)

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