“Swallow,” currently in limited release from IFC Films, marks a confident narrative feature debut by filmmaker Carlo Mirabella-Davis. Thirty-nine and a lover of the medium since he begged his parents to let him rent a horror movie for his sixth birthday, he is particularly drawn to “dangerous and strange” films. (His parents chose “The Blob;” it gave him nightmares.) That love for the subversive shines through in “Swallow,” a deliberate and dark thriller that follows Hunter (Haley Bennett) from pristine homemaker to woman on the verge as she develops pica and starts compulsively swallowing household objects.
I caught Mirabella-Davis on the phone for a chat about the inspiration for this unique story. As generous and surprising as his film, he indulged me in a few detours, from his escapades as a high school cinephile to the perils of the male gaze.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What films impacted you the most growing up?
These aren’t movies, but my mother would teach Dante and Boccaccio in Italy, and I spent a lot of time sketching frescoes of hell, which taught me that art should be something powerful and evocative and dangerous that explored the labyrinth of the human mind and soul.
And then I actually went to high school with Jordan Peele, and he took me under his wing when I was about 15 and he was 16. He invited me over and he was like, “There’s two movies I think you should see,” and we watched “The Shining” and “Akira” back to back. After that, I was bitten by the film bug. The psychological intricacies of those films fascinated me. Of course I’ve followed Jordan’s career with absolute awe. He’s already made two legendary masterpieces of horror, and I was always very grateful to him for being so kind to me and showing me those films.
I was committed. I used to watch five films a day when I was in college. Chantal Akerman‘s films were a huge influence, like “Jeanne Dielman,” and also Claire Denis, and films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “A Woman Under the Influence” and all the Cronenberg movies really mesmerized me.
How did you get from there to “Swallow”?
The film is inspired by my grandmother, who was a homemaker in an unhappy marriage in the 1950s. She was an obsessive hand-washer who would go through four bars of soap a day and twelve bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. And my grandfather, at the encouragement of doctors, put her in a mental institution where they gave her electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy, and a non-consensual lobotomy that they botched. She lost her sense of taste and smell.
I always felt that she was being punished for not living up to society’s expectations of what they thought a wife or a mother should be, and I wanted to make a film about that. But hand-washing is not very cinematic, so I remember seeing the contents of all these objects that had been surgically removed from a patient with pica. They were fanned out like an archaeological dig, and I wanted to know what drew the patient to those artifacts.
Tell me more about the research you did to develop your grandmother’s story.
When my grandmother passed, I remember thinking a lot about her tale. I got the case file from the institution and I read it, and it is quite a document. Heartbreaking, really intense. And there’s this scene in it where my grandmother, in order to get out of the hospital, has to swear to this doctor that she is going to fulfill the duties of a wife, and that she’s going to take care of the house. It’s really quite something. That always stuck with me.