NORDIC & BALTIC FILMS AT 2014 TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL

Still from the Estonian documentary film "In The Crosswinds" Photo: Allfilm

 

IN THE CROSSWIND (ESTONIA)

In 1941, an Estonian woman and her young daughter struggle to find their way home after being deported to Siberia by the Soviet occupiers, in this dreamlike saga of survival inspired by a true story.

On the night of June 14, 1941, many thousands of inhabitants of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia — identified as “anti-Soviet elements” by the USSR, which had annexed the Baltic states the previous year — were forced onto trains and sent to the remotest outposts of Siberia. Thousands of families were torn apart and forced to endure brutal conditions for nearly two decades until their eventual release. Inspired by a first-hand account of these events, this unforgettable debut feature by director Martti Helde meticulously reconstructs one survivor’s story to create a delicate, powerfully moving memorial to all the victims of this massive and often-overlooked tragedy.

In the Crosswind focuses on the personal experience of philosophy student Erna (Laura Peterson) as she endures physical and psychological hardships alongside her little daughter, Eliide, while waiting to be reunited with her husband Heldur, a soldier. Drawing from the diary kept by the real-life Erna throughout her displacement, Helde renders her memories in striking black-and-white tableaux vivants. Carving out an uncanny space between motion and stasis, these images evoke a state in which the past seems solid and the present like a dream.

Exhaustively researched, with immersive sound design and sumptuous cinematography, In the Crosswind is a remarkable achievement: a testimony to a vital historical moment, a powerfully subjective account of a search for home, and an ode to the ethereal strangeness of memory.


LIFE IN A FISHBOWL (ICELAND/FINLAND/SWEDEN)

A hit at the domestic box office, Icelandic director Baldvin Zophoníasson’s intriguing, multiple-narrative drama follows three people — a struggling single mother, a former athlete trying to scale the corporate ladder, and a once-acclaimed author turned full-time drunk — whose lives intersect in surprising ways.

In the follow-up to his promising first feature, Jitters (which had its international premiere at the 2011 TIFF Kids International Film Festival), Icelandic director Baldvin Zophoniasson transplants the interconnected multiple-narrative model popularized by filmmakers like Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson to Reykjavik, with powerful and affecting results.

Eik is a single mother struggling to make ends meet by any means possible. Sölvi is a former athlete who’s now trying to climb the corporate ladder and deal with a dictatorial boss whose ethics leave more than a little to be desired. Mori is a once-well-respected author who now appears to be a full-time drunk. With confidence and precision, Zophoniasson shuttles between these three characters — who eventually intersect in surprising ways — while using their stories to address pressing contemporary issues.

Sölvi’s plotline speaks to the recent financial catastrophe, one caused by a handful of individuals who essentially robbed the country of its collective wealth and suffered few to no repercussions afterward. Eik’s, meanwhile, illustrates the hardships foisted upon the losers in that epic swindle. Perhaps most pertinently in an Icelandic context, Mori’s tale criticizes the marginalization of artists in contemporary society — which is particularly keenly felt in a country where the creative spirit is so prevalent.

While glimmers of hope do emerge as his film progresses, Zophoniasson is also painfully aware that knowledge is hard-won and harder to apply: even when offered a second chance, his characters seem doomed to make the same mistakes. One of the country’s most successful domestic hits in recent memory, Life in a Fishbowl is rightly assuming its status as one of the key Icelandic films of the decade.


 FORCE MAJEURE (SWEDEN/NORWAY/DENMARK/FRANCE)

An impulsive decision in a moment of crisis drives a wedge between a husband and wife, in this gripping moral drama from provocative director Ruben Östlund (Play) that became a word-of-mouth sensation at this year’s Cannes.
One of the most daring and audacious filmmakers to emerge in the last decade, Ruben Östlund hit a new peak with Force Majeure, a critical hit at this year’s Cannes. As in his previous films Involuntary and Play, with his latest Östlund turns a keenly analytic eye on those principles we supposedly live by, and explores what happens when the codes of conduct enforcing those principles are abruptly stripped away.
On a family skiing vacation in the French Alps, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are enjoying lunch with their two children when their meal is suddenly interrupted by thunderous booms emanating from the mountain above them. The complacent Tomas initially dismisses the possibility of danger — but when it appears that there may be an avalanche, he grabs his cellphone and bolts, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. The remainder of the film monitors the fallout from this fateful incident, as husband and wife hotly debate what actually occurred, and what Tomas’s proper response should have been — a battle that eventually threatens not just Tomas and Ebba’s relationship, but those of the people around them.
Both psychologically and sociologically acute, Force Majeure boasts a number of bravura moments that range from terrifying to comic — most notably, and daringly, an extended crying jag/confession by one of the principals that is as indelible as the tear-drenched finale of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Vive L’Amour. While on the one hand this climactic confession is self-serving, convoluted and shambolic, it also seems bizarrely honest. Probing that paradox with intelligence and incisiveness, it’s little wonder that, with Force Majeure, Östlund has earned comparisons to such masterful cinematic social critics as Michael Haneke and Östlund’s countryman and mentor Roy Andersson.


 MODRIS (LATVIA/GERMANY/GREECE)

In this tough but compassionate coming-of-age drama, a Latvian teenager with a serious gambling addiction sets out to find his long-lost father.
Based on actual events, this preternaturally wise fiction-feature debut from director Juris Kursietis tells the story of Modris (Kristers Piksa), a seventeen-year-old who, though he seems at first glance no different from the rest of the teenagers in his small Latvian town, has already developed a debilitating addiction to slot machines. His obsession fuels an ongoing conflict with his mother (Rezija Kalnina), who can’t stop reminding Modris that his father is incarcerated, irresponsible, no good to anyone, and surely the source of the bad genes that have led Modris astray.

Modris hits his nadir when, in the middle of the punishing Baltic winter, he sells his mother’s electric heater for a little more money to squander on the slots. Mother cold-bloodedly hands Modris over to the police so that he can finally learn his lesson — but her plan backfires when Modris’s attitude changes for the worse, and he shows less and less interest in keeping out of trouble. Sentenced to two years of probation and told that he needs to walk the line, Modris sets his mind on a single goal: finding his long-absent father, a man about whom he knows nothing apart from what he’s learned from his mother’s ceaseless badmouthing.

Modris is a tough yet compassionate coming-of-age film from an emerging director with a tremendous command of craft and an evident understanding of his protagonist’s plight. One can’t help but sympathize with the young hero, even as he goes ever further down the wrong road. Bad genes or no, he’s not a bad kid: like most of us, he just needs a break.

 

 

 


A SECOND CHANCE (DENMARK)

A veteran police officer (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones) with a wife and new baby makes a fateful decision when he is brought back into contact with a pair of junkie parents, in this powerful, morally complex drama from Academy Award-winning director Susanne Bier (Brothers, In a Better World).
In films like In a Better World, After the Wedding and Brothers, Academy Award- winning director Susanne Bier created characters who, having once appeared to be moral paragons, found themselves derailed by sudden, drastic changes, forcing them to confront previously suppressed tensions between desire, need, and ethics. Bier’s latest, A Second Chance, presents what may be the most extreme and disturbing moral conundrum she’s examined to date.
Veteran police officer Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is happily married to the beautiful Anne (Maria Bonnevie), who has just given birth to their first child. The only cloud on Andreas’s otherwise untroubled horizon is his partner, Simon (Ulrich Thomsen), who is having enormous trouble adjusting to his divorce and whose drinking binges are becoming alarmingly frequent. Andreas’s comfortable life is then thrown into sharp relief when a domestic disturbance brings him back in contact with an abusive junkie named Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), whose girlfriend Sanne (Lykke May Andersen) has also just given birth — but in contrast to Andreas’s and Anne’s doted-on child, Tristan’s and Sanne’s infant son is neglected, often lying in its own filth for hours. (These scenes are definitely not for the squeamish.) When things unexpectedly fall apart at home, Andreas is faced with a troubling and contradictory choice.
Boasting one of the finest casts in recent Danish cinema and magnificently held together by Coster-Waldau’s commanding lead performance, A Second Chance is emotionally devastating from start to finish. Courageously tackling the moral complexities of Anders Thomas Jensen’s brilliant script, Bier juxtaposes privilege with poverty, lays bare our prejudices and assumptions, and demands that we confront them.


JAUJA (DENMARK/USA/MEXICO/ARGENTINA/NETHERNLANDS/GERMANY/FRANCE)

In the dazzlingly ambitious new film from Argentinian auteur Lisandro Alonso (Los Muertos, Liverpool), a 19th-century Danish general (Viggo Mortensen) undertakes a gruelling physical and metaphysical journey when he pursues his runaway daughter into the rugged wilderness of Patagonia.
Since his 2001 debut, La Libertad, Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso has established himself as one of the most original international auteurs. Rigorously probing and destabilizing the boundaries between fiction and documentary, he has created an enigmatic cinema that questions the essence of reality, the limits of fiction, and the definition of “cinema” itself.
Alonso’s latest feature, Jauja — its title a reference to a mythical land of plenty — marks an important departure in his oeuvre. While maintaining the singular visual style, languid pace, and rugged landscapes of his previous films Los Muertos and Liverpool, Jauja is Alonso’s first period piece, his first film with a formal script, and the first time he has worked with professional actors. Viggo Mortensen (also one of the film’s producers) plays Danish general Gunnar Dinesen, who is assigned to a scouting mission in the wilds of Patagonia during the Spaniards’ 1882 campaign to rid the land of its indigenous people. When his beloved fifteen-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Villbjork Agger Malling) runs off with a young soldier, Dinesen mounts his horse and sets off in pursuit, desperately hoping to find her before she is caught by the notorious brigand Zuluaga, a former soldier who, like Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, has gone native.
As Dinesen’s search leads him ever deeper into the wilderness, the film starts to assume a more metaphysical dimension — time and space begin to collapse as Alonso posits a cyclical, rather than linear, vision of life’s journey. Just as the film’s title conjures up visions of everlasting abundance, so Alonso evokes the limitless possibilities of film narrative.


 FOREGIN BODY (POLAND/RUSSIA/ITALY)

A dashing young Italian in Poland finds himself caught between two women — a novitiate nun and a ruthless corporate ladder-climber — in this lacerating vision of contemporary Poland from master filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi.
Polish master Krzysztof Zanussi has always acted in part as the conscience of his country, mining the moral and spiritual health of his society. In Foreign Body, he takes an uncompromising look at contemporary Poland largely through the eyes of two very different women whose lives intersect through their common relationship with a young man.
When we first meet Angelo (Riccardo Leonelli), a dashing young Italian, he is deeply in love with Kasia (Agata Buzek), a Polish woman who, despite the entreaties of both Angelo and her father, has decided to become a nun. Neither man can conceive of why she has chosen this path, but she remains determined. Holding out hope that he can sway her, Angelo moves to a city near the convent where Kasia is preparing to take her vows. He gets hired by a successful new company where he attracts the attentions of his ambitious and extremely attractive boss, Kris (Agnieszka Grochowska) — a woman who will stop at nothing to reach the top. The stage is set for Zanussi’s exploration into not just what the new capitalism has wrought in Poland, but also how the old Poland still has a grip on the present.
Roughhouse office politics give way to dangerous sexual predilections as the stakes heat up; meanwhile, our young novitiate moves through a world that feels millions of miles away. Zanussi probes ideas of freedom — be it spiritual or sexual, religious or economic — and in the process surveys the moral rubble of today’s Poland with his usual intelligence and élan, finding little to celebrate in a world that has lost its ethical compass.

 

 


 MAIDAN (UKRAINE)

Celebrated Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa (In the Fog) creates one of the essential cinematic experiences of our time with this epic, formally audacious documentary chronicle of the historic protests in Kiev’s Maïdan square.
A cause célèbre at this year’s Cannes and a rallying cri de coeur from Ukraine’s most celebrated contemporary filmmaker, Maïdan is Sergei Loznitsa’s monumental documentary portrait of a revolution in the making. A welcome return to Loznitsa’s documentary roots after his internationally celebrated fiction features My Joy and In the Fog, Maïdan captures the events in Kiev’s eponymous public square over the course of ninety crucial days: from late 2013, when citizens gathered to demonstrate against President Ianoukovitch’s regime, to March 2014, when the protest became an outright insurrection.
Eschewing interviews and talking-head commentary, Loznitsa also refutes the jittery, hand-held camerawork of so many formless “Occupy” films or direct-reportage docs. Comprised almost entirely of static master shots, Maïdan exhibits a consciously rigorous style that is directly linked to the idea of the masses. In a bold and controversial move, Loznitsa rises above political complexities to observe the nature of the civil uprising as a social, cultural, and philosophical phenomenon, chronicling the sheer mechanics and vigour of human movement and expression as they are activated by political action.
Capturing quotidian preparations, impassioned speeches, songs and prayers, and the terrifying heat of battle, Loznitsa’s long takes ultimately reveal the might of the masses to come together and rally for freedom and independence. (Cinephiles will note the formalist invocations of Eisenstein’s masterpieces Strike and October — a daring and surprising gesture for a film about a people’s struggle against Russian hegemony.)
Epic in scale, breathtakingly cinematic, and critically urgent, Maïdan is a major work of our time. It is a film to be experienced and discussed, and one we will undoubtedly return to for years to come — not only as a document of a historic turning point for Ukraine, but as a moving testament to human solidarity and conviction and a formidable feat of filmmaking.

 

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