House of Sweat and Tears (aka Casa de Sudor y Lágrimas) is the debut from director Sonia Escolano; and it’s a promising start to her career, even if the film itself fails to deliver.
House of Sweat and Tears is set in what looks like an underground bunker in an unnamed location where a religious cult lives in isolation, led by a mysterious woman known only as She, or mother. The cult members pray, hang onto She’s every word and self-harm to prove their devotion. Everyone dresses in all white, abstains from sex, has no contact with the outside world and plays make believe games for recreation. She, in contrast, wears colour and has a hidden cell phone that the others may or may not know about.
The world of the cult is unsettling and eerie. There are rules and rituals that everyone seems to understand and follow, but are never fully explained to the viewer. Even the cult members are enigmas — we don’t know why they joined this cult nor how they got there. One flashes a glimpse of a swastika tattoo, possibly implying looking for salvation or a fresh start. But the cult doesn’t seem to be actively recruiting and there’s no hierarchy among the current members, as if some joined years before the others.
The lack of definition in the cult and its members mean the events of the film don’t pack as much of a punch as intended. We don’t really get a feel for many of the characters and it’s almost like the film isn’t sure who we should be rooting for. Is it the devout Emma, the rebellious Sophie or the sweet Jerome?
One thing that the film absolutely nails is the violence. When it happens, it’s shocking and even hard to watch. People bleed out slowly with a sense of realism that fits in the drab bunker and the quietness of the film. At times, House of Sweat and Tears feels familiar to Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth — a bizarre, self-contained world with its own rules and the occasional brutal violence.
The style of House of Sweat and Tears doesn’t quite make up for the substance. The film needed a tighter script and a stronger story than just religious allegories, but it still marks an impressive debut for Escolano.