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Salem Horror Fest 2020: “Leni” Review — Ailín Zaninovich Excellently Demonstrates the Horrors of Resurfaced Trauma

Scrolling through the wealth of great programming, it was clear that all of the hype for this year’s Salem Horror Fest was well-founded. There’s a plentiful diversity in shorts, features and informative lectures to satisfy any genre fan. The streaming interface, coupled with an accessible livestream, makes for easy scrolling through the array of spooky offerings. K Lynch and the entire festival team should be proud of what they’ve accomplished with this virtual gathering. And I’m excited to let you all know what you should be checking out! 

A woman is kneeling in the middle of the floor. Broken glass and turned over furniture is strewn throughout the apartment. Her cries turn into a shrieking, loud wail. This is Leni (Ailín Zaninovich). We don’t know why she’s distraught, but it’s a fair assessment that something bad has happened or will happen. And over the course of “Leni,” we get to see the evolution of this immediately distressing character introduction. 

Leni — at this time in her life — is reeling from losing her mother and the fresh wound of a bad breakup with her ex-boyfriend Martin. He won’t answer any calls or texts. And to make matters worse, she’s been saddled with land purchased in her name with stolen money. Martin’s a prick. Daily activities are violently interrupted by flashes of a nighttime attack by a mysterious charred figure she can’t quite remember. The fragmented pieces add up to a whole, but there’s no picture on the box to help form the puzzle. The horror of “Leni” derives from the titular character reliving a terrible nightmare, and only through these triggered flashes is she able to uncover the dark secret at the heart of her recent lapses.

Ailín Zaninovich in “Leni” I Salem Horror Fest

In his debut feature, writer/director Federico Gianotti creates a consistently eerie mood throughout. I appreciate how he plays with controlling the audience perspective, at times, through the lens of the unreliable narrator. This can be best encapsulated by cinematographer Max Ruggieri’s well-executed two-shot with Leni on her bed, gripping a bottle of wine in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other. She takes a large gulp of the wine. The large mirror shows her doing the same gulp but mere seconds apart. It really drives home the idea that Leni is of two minds and we’re not sure which one is in charge. 

As a victim of generational abuse, Leni has grown to be self-conscious about her physical features based on how her abusers molded her to their benefit. There is great pain in Zaninovich’s performance, as she wants to start seeing Juan (Francisco Macia), a new guy she likes, but is apprehensive to move forward given the toxicity and mistrust of past relationships. This becomes especially clear when you learn of what took place in her youth and the lasting repercussions it has. There’s a lot to love about how Zaninovich’s subdued complexities come across on screen. “Leni” rests entirely on her shoulders.

There is a part of me, however, that believes that the climactic gut-punch of “Leni” could have benefitted from a greater extension of time spent with Leni herself, despite all that Zaninovich gives to the role. The film runs short, clocking in at just under 74 minutes as it is. As information was slowly unfurled, it felt as if there wasn’t enough time to let some of these harrowing reveals marinate as the film reached its poignant climax. 

Bolstered by Zaninovich’s tenacity, “Leni” is a frequently engaging psychological exploration of just how ingrained deep-seated trauma can linger in the subconscious long after the abuse ends, concluding on an effective final shot.

Featured Image: Ailín Zaninovich in “Leni”

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