Archive for the ‘Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival’ Category

The Punishment (2022) Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival 2022

Dir: Matias Bize | Wri: Coral Cruz | Cast: Antonia Zegers, Nestor Cantillana | Drama 85′

A small child turns the tables on his parents in this taut and discursive two-handed drama from the accomplished Chilean director Matias Bize and his screenwriter Coral Cruz.

Ana and Mateo have stopped their car in the woods on their way to visit Ana’s parents for dinner. But a heated argument soon absorbs their attention and seven-year-old Lucas is left to fend for himself. When they are ready to leave, the boy is nowhere to be seen.

Both blaming each other for his disappearance, uncomfortable truths start to surface as the couple question their failure as parents. Ana sternly calls out to Lucas, threatening him with all sorts of privations for his bad behaviour, before eventually ‘phoning the police. It’s a fraught scenario that rings alarm bells for every parent, anything could happen in this bosky backwater, and the camera roves through trees and undergrowth during one tense take.

Zegers’ Ana is ‘mean-mummy’ with her hard-faced disciplinarian approach to dealing with Lucas, and our sympathies lie with her son and his more tolerant father (Cantillana) who, at least, tries to come up with solutions. But then it emerges that Lucas is a bit of a rebel, and not easy to manage, his teachers suspect he is suffering from ADHD.

Gradually Zegers’ wins us over with her plausible confession that eventually brings the drama to its satisfying conclusion, persuading us that motherhood is no picnic; much of the time it is frustrating, gruelling and thankless.

The Punishment is a well-crafted but dour drama that could have worked better as a radio play given the monotonous confines of its setting. Zegers and Cantillana do their best to make Ana and Mateo feel authentic and relatable in a drama that proves, once again, that we are always toughest on the ones we love. MT


A Letter from Helga (2022) Tallinn Film Festival 2022

Dir/Co-Wri: Așa Hjorleifsdottir | Romantic Drama | Iceland, Netherlands, Estonia | 118′

The wild and windswept fjords and mountains of Iceland are the setting for this visually resplendent romantic drama that sees a poet fall hopelessly in love with his neighbour. A Letter from Helga is based on a novella by Bergsveinn Birgisson who co-scripts.

Așa Hjorleifsdottir follows her first feature The Swan with another lyrical and more accomplished look at how nature and Iceland’s rural and folkloric heritage shapes the emotions of the inhabitants of this extraordinary scenic island in the Northern hemisphere.

For Helga (Hera Hilmar) and Bjarni (Thor Kristjansson) loves comes like a lightening bolt although they are both – unhappily – married, Helga has two young kids with Hallgrimur (Bjorn Thors), Barni and Unnur (Anita Briem) are locked in childless misery. Forbidden fruit is always more tantalising, and the lovers secret trysts grow more passionate as they reflect on their stale marriages, in heart-rending flashbacks. And yet changing their lives seems impossible in the disproving social set-up.

The story is simple with its themes of infidelity, jealousy and bitter regret, but embellished with such poetic poignancy and passion and leads Hera Hilmar and Thor Kristjansson really feel real in their romantic adventure. Hjorleifsdottir scores the intimate scenes and teasing tete-a-tetes with a sweeping score from Kristin Anna Valtysdottir that often tingles with its icy top notes and strident strings, riffing on local ballads and dances. Dreams of starting a new life in Reykjavik hint of a promising future that can never be but seems so possible in the brave new world after the War. MT



And Yet We Were All Blind (2022) Tallinn Film Festival 2022

Dir.: Beatrice Pollet; Cast: Maud Wyler, Geraldine Nakache, Gregoire Colin, Fanny Cottencon, Pascale Vignal, Pascal Demolon, Ophelia Kolb; France 2022, 95min.

Based on real events, French writer/director Beatrice Pollet recreates a courtroom drama centred on Claire Morel, a lawyer and mother of two daughters, whose denial of her pregnancy nearly led to the death of her newborn son and landed her in front of a court, accused of infanticide.

Claire (Wyler) is a happy mother of two and lives a contended middle-class life with husband Thomas (Colin), a tree surgeon. One night, when Thomas returns late home from work, he finds his wife bleeding heavily, her life hanging in the balance when the police arrive. But rather than help, they accuse her of infanticide after a neighbour found a new born baby in a dumpster opposite her house.

Claire’s best friend, a lawyer called Sophie (Nakache) takes over her case. But it’s not going to easy. Claire was in denial of her pregnancy, she the court and jury take a dim view of her, pressing a harsh sentence. The Judge (Demolon) takes a sympathetic view, the prosecutor (Kolb) asks for the maximal custodial sentence of seven years. Sophie researches Claire’s medical history. It seems she was only aware of being pregnant with her daughter Babou three months into the term. But nobody really believes Claire has “repressed” the birth of her baby son – and she cannot remember dumping him on the container. Even Thomas has his doubts. Yet Sophie remains convinced of her friend’s story. In the end, it falls to the medical experts.  The public – and particularly women – aggressively calling Claire “a Sorceress” and asking “for the protection of the womb”.

There are echoes of Alice Diop’s recent Venice winner Saint Omer another example of filicide with no rational motive. Claire is in a much stronger position being a lawyer, and aware of how the system works. But she is reluctant to exercise her professional knowledge incase she loses her status as a lawyer. But more than anything, she fears her new baby, Simon, will never bond with her.

Pollet tries very hard to avoid any sentimentality, and she succeeds most of the time, although we don’t feel get a strong impression of the characters, they seem to fade into George Lechaptois washed out aesthetic. A worthwhile drama but one that could have certainly benefited from more more emotional cut and thrust and a less academic approach. AS

World premiere at the Tallinn Festival | The 23rd of November at 6.30pm

The Poet (2022) Tallinn Film Festival 2022

Dir.: Giedrius Tamosevicius, Vitautas V. Landsbergis; Cast: Donatus Zelvys, Dainius Gavenonis, Indre Patkauskaite, Martynas Nedzinskas; Lithuania 2022, 111 min.

The Poet is not just another epic drama about the grim days of Russian- occupied Lithuania in the late 1940s. First time director Giedrius Tamosevicius and veteran Vitautas V. Landsbergis avoid cliches, derring-do and bloody battlefields, instead opting for a cerebral look into the mind of a talented yet emotionally unstable creative spirit, the poet Kostas. This is a drama that turns on a moral dilemma and explores heroism from another angle. And to make things really authentic the directors have gone for a Soviet realist aesthetic – popular in many Eastern bloc countries after the fall of communism.

Kostas (Zelvys) has been sent down from university for his Anti-Soviet poetry that undermined the ‘great leader’ Stalin. He gets a second chance by agreeing to be a double agent for the KGB, into the bargain saving his family from deportation to the infamous GULAG. His first assignment involves infiltrating a group of partisans fighting the Soviet occupation forces from their hideouts in the woods. Under the guise of a teacher, he falls for librarian Jule (Patkauskaite), unaware she is in league with the partisans and is put off  by Kostas’ opportunism. But life gets complicated when Kostas is asked by Taurus (Gavenonis), the leader of the partisans, to become a double agent in their own ranks. He agrees, hoping to win Jule back.

At a Teacher’s Congress in Vilnius Kostas meets up with an old friend Eduardos (Nedzinskas), who has found a way of working the system and making a living from his anti-Soviet poems. He wants Kostas to do the same and move back to Vilnius. But Kostas gets embroiled with his KGB case officer, and finds himself being blown off course work-wise and emotionally. His double life starts to implode after the partisans come under attack from Russian forces during a night’s celebration in the woods. Kostas and Taurus dive for shelter in an underground bunker where they explore the enormity of their decisions during a dark night of the soul. AS


River of Desire (2022) Tallinn Film Festival 2022

Dir.: Sergio Machado; Cast: Sophie Charlotte, Rômulo Braga, Daniel De Oliveira, Gabe Leone, Coco Chiarella; Brazil 2022, Romantic thriller 107 min.

Brazilian writer director Sergio Machado started his film career as assistant to Walter Salles and went on to win the Youth Award at Cannes in 2005 for his feature Lower City. After success with credits in TV, documentary and commercial video his latest drama River of Desire is a passion-fuelled waterside ménage-à-quatre based on Milton Hatoum’s “Farewell Captain”. Machado’s well-structured script is sadly let down by the overtly male gaze of the graphic sex scenes and a melodramatic tele-novella ending.

The story centres on three brothers Dalberto (de Oliveira), Dalmo (Braga) and Armando (Leone) who get along amicably in the house they have inherited from their father after his wife left with a Gringo. But when the Dalberto is joined by his beguiling new wife Anaíra (Charlotte) the dynamic shifts as masculine desires are unleashed and – inevitably – family tragedy ensues as the three find themselves in love with the same woman. One day Dalberto’s work takes him up the Amazon river from Brazil to Peru Anaira becomes lonely and despondent and looks to the other two for her entertainment.

Machado’s intriguing character drama is suffused in the vibrant colours and sensuality of this sweltering tropical paradise that plays on the hormonal rush of the remaining siblings once their brother has gone upstream. Anaira is playful and naive, and has no idea what reality has in store for her in this watchable thriller which makes fabulous use of its Amazon locations. AS


Songs for a Fox (2021) Tallinn 2021

Dir: Kristijonas Vildžiūnas | Lithuania, Drama 125′

There’s a magical lyrical quality to Songs for a Fox which seems to echo the director’s previous life as a rock musician before becoming a filmmaker with a string of features, winning the special jury prize at Tallinn for You Am I (2006).

Set in the glorious summery meadows and swampy woods of Lithuania Songs follows emotionally vulnerable rock singer Danius who escapes to the bucolic paradise to get over the death of his girlfriend. He may run but can’t hide from the haunting memories of their time together and she appears in woozy dream sequences as he slips in and out of reality, in a script loosely based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and also inspired by Lithuanian folklore.

The story gradually unravels inside his subconscious while reality is firmly tethered to the wild landscapes of this post soviet nation lucidly captured by Jurgis Kmins’ camera blending 3D animation, VFX and evocative wildlife images to echo Greek mythology, medieval folklore, paintings by Pieter Bruegel and Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s’ Dream.

This imaginative visual backcloth is accompanied by a surreal soundscape of newly recorded songs by cult Lithuanian band ‘Šiaurės kryptis’ in a fable about love, longing and the circle of life. MT



Feature Film About Life (2021) Black Night Festival Tallinn

Dir.: Dovile Sarutyte; Cast: Agne Misiunatie, Nele Savicenko, Kestutis Jakstas, Romuald Lavrinovic, Inga Maskarina, Aldona Bronislava Dausienie; Lithuania 2021, 100 min.

Don’t be put off by the rather banal title, this first film from Lithuanian director/co-writer Dovile Sarutyte is a small gem: genre wise, a trauma fuelled road movie that finds dark humour in the banal and the tragic when a young woman is suddenly confronted by the double blow of death and complex funeral arrangements. A time of mourning when we are forced to face the world at the most importune time.

In a Paris hotel we meet Dovile (Misiunatie), a young recording artist in her twenties, celebrating being young and independent with her two girlfriends Egle and Rasa. A day later, at work in her Vilnius studio recording studio in Vilnius, the world implodes with the sudden death of her father. The story continues as past happiness mingles with current anguish – home videos of Dovile’s childhood in the 1990s, and now the aftermath of family tragedy – a clapped-out Mercedes and a neurotic mother (Savicenko).

The two women meet Vladislavas (Lavrinovic) a greedy undertaker capitalising on their grief to sell them the most expensive funeral package. Afterwards, Dovile grapples with the Death Certificate from the hospital morgue, the cause of death was heart failure. Desperate for more detail to help her process her anguish Dovile learns that her father’s liver was severely damaged. The arrangements for the wake are also costly: 500 Euro for a one-day rental. “I could rent a concert hall for that” snaps Dovile and goes to meet Tadas (Jakstas), an old friend of her father, but not before the car breaks down.

Tadas has not seen Dovile’s father for more than six months but proves to be a ‘friend in need’. Father had stopped driving due to an alcohol problem, piling bewilderment onto her shaky state of emotional fragility. Gradually things come together, the Mercedes is repaired and Tadas finds a much cheaper venue for the wake: the boss of the funeral parlour, Zita (Maskarina), is a former flame. Dovile also makes a collage of photos from the family album telling her father’s life story in the wake room, where the urn looks solemn, a life reduced to a pot.

After the funeral, Dovile and her Mum make fun of Zita trying to re kindle her relationship with Tadas. But the laughter turns hollow, when it emerges Dovile’s grandmother somehow missed her lift to the funeral, and she explodes in anger: “You burned my little son”, insisting on a photo of the deceased in an open coffin.

The home videos show a joyful Dovile. But reading between the lines, the truth is quite different. Funny how we often remember the past with rose-tinted spectacles, bringing another strand of false memory to the narrative. At least Dovile and her father bought Christmas presents for each other, and this makes for a mellow ending to the traumatic and frustrating two-day adventure. DoP Eitvydas Doskus has kept up with the pace of the story, the images flying by, but his close-ups of Dovile, who is suffering from a worrying eye infection, are a testament to his skill of creating intimate moments. Dovile Saratyte is certainly a name to be reckoned with – you read it here first! AS


The Conscience (2021)

Dir.: Aleksey Kozlov; Cast: Vladislav Komarov, Alexandre Kononets, Vasily Shcipitsyn, Natalya Sveshinova; Russia 2021, 93 min.

Already winning awards for screenplay and artistic achievement this compulsive crime drama from Russian director/co-writer Aleksey Kozlov takes place in the early 1920s Petrograd where Boris Letush, a law professor at the university, becomes embroiled in a dark underworld of politics and secret police while investigating the death of his brother and sister in law, – his nieceMargo survived, but was struck dumb by the traumatic experience.

Letush (Komarov) is a busy man. Teaching his university students, and actively working for the Police, his boss Matveer (Shcipitsyn) is an unscrupulous and greedy little man, who steals food and sleeps with women who are in thrall to, fully aware he has syphilis. So far the chief murder suspect is a well known felon and gang leader Lyonka Panteleev (Komonets). The police boss is convinced he has his man but Letush suspects Matveer himself of the crime, and his lover, a cabaret singer, is ready to denounce him. But the fly in the ointment is that Panteleev was also working for the police as undercover agent. But the do decide to go ahead with Matveer’s plan to have Panteleev ‘escape’ from prison, being shot “whilst escaping”.

Of course it all goes wrong on the night and Panteleev escapes for real, leaving Letush and Msatveer in the lurch, and attracting the attention of the Cheka (Secret Police) after  Letush’s lover Vera (Sveshinova) falls foul of the law trying to escape to Paris.

Paranoia seethes throughout a city where everyone seems to be untrustworthy, not least the Cheka on the regular Police. Letush, for all his scruples, is caught up in these over-lapping spider-webs of deceit. He may be a goodie with the best of intentions but somehow the climate conspires against him, leaving him no alternative but to participate if he wants to save Vera and Margo.

Throwing shadows all over the place, DoP Viacheslav Tyurin creates a German expressionist underworld of subterfuge and sculduggery where it never seems to get light as the characters struggle to survive the atmosphere of menace. There is no quarter given for mitigation or self doubt, the only way forward is to hunt with the wolves, as Letush will find eventually find out to his chagrin. AS

THE CONSCIENCE is showing as part of the London Russian Film Festival, currently being held for the first time in the UK – from November 12 to December 10, 2021. New customers can enjoy the festival films on BFI PLAYER as part of an extended Subscription free trial using the voucher code RFF21.




Stanislavski. Lust for Life (2020)

Dir.: Julia Bobkova; Documentary with Declan Donnellan, Renata Litvinova, Katie Mitchell, Nikita Mikhalkov, Marina Brusnikina, Yuriy Butosov, Oskaras Korsunovas, Lev Dodin; Russia 2020, 82 min.

A new film explores the pioneering work of Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) who became synonymous with a performance style based on his ‘Actor’s Manual’ in three parts, published during the 1930s.

The ‘Stanislavski Method’ is the bible of all progressive theatre artists, and still hotly discussed in all the best dressing rooms, even though Stanislavski himself is quoted saying “Create your own method, don’t rely on mine. Keep on breaking traditions”. Stanislavski himself managed to maintain his inner freedom and true artistry within the harsh boundaries of the Soviet system, all thanks to the power of his prodigious talent.

The MHAT (Moscow Arts Theatre, which Stanislavski founded with Vladimir Nemerovich in 1898), seems an appropriate setting for a series of interviews with leading proponents on this method immersive feature documentary directed by Julia Bobkova. We meet Lithuanian director Oskaras Korsunovas who claims sitting in Stanislavski’s chair, rehearsing ‘The Seagul l’, gave him the inspiration for his performance. Marina Brusnikina, also a stage director, talks about the master’s polemic writing “Theatre is Dying”, which was published when he was still alive in the late 1930s. She sees the modern actor as a journalist and explorer, crossing the borderline of regular theatre. She laments the fact that Shakespeare is no longer on the curriculum in London acting schools. The general consensus nowadays is that studying the bard is unlikely to help you a get slot on HBO as a filmmaker.

Katie Mitchell, Artistic Director of the ‘Globe Theatre’ (and stage director of a Virginia Wolfe novel based purely on the reflections of the main character) goes a step further: “Cinema deprives the audience of imagination. It replaces imagination with itself. Theatre happens not so much on the stage, but in the imagination of the audience”. Russian film and stage director Nikita Mikalkov (Burnt by the Sun) talks about his adaption of Stanislavski’s approach to rehearsals: “During rehearsals, with five or more cameras active, I ask one of the actors to do something which is not in the script, like putting a cup of tea forcefully on the table where the rest of the cast is sitting. Their reaction is priceless and gives me ideas.”

An exhibition at the MHAT shows stills and other memorabilia of all “Seagull” productions the theatre has ever staged, from Stanislavski’s (it did not open the theatre as commonly reported) to the most recent, directed by Oskaras Korsunovas.

Stanislavski’s tour of the USA from 1922-24 was a great success, and “was the best thing that could have happened to Hollywood. Many Russian directors and actors left the hunger they faced in Stalinist Russia, and emigrated to the New World”. Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren are seen heaping praise on the Russian innovator. Renata Litvinova, who teaches at the ‘Actor’s Studio’ is adamant, that “Genius is 95% work. You have to throw yourself away every day.” And Ivana Chubbuck, who has taught countless Oscar and Emmy winners, underlines Litvinova’s sentiments: “It is not just one day, where you have to give everything, it is your life”. There are some pessimistic thoughts raised at the MHAT events: “Now the office dictates to actors and directors. But it should be the other way round. People become more and more irrelevant, as we head to a virtual life. It’s a kind of de-personalisation, with a lack of direct, intimate connections. Today everything is becoming a sort of a product measured in currency.”

At the end of the film, the actors and directors are given some writing by Stanislavski to read out in front of the camera. Declan Donellan, Artistic Director of ‘Cheek by Jowl’, is annoyed when he reads the Master’s advice not to copy him, and goes spontaneously on strike.

Bobkova keeps talking heads to a minimum, thus avoiding hagiography, instead her more radical approach focuses on the lively camera crew of six and entertaining archive clips of the master, bringing the past and the present together, and keeping Stanislavski’s independent spirit alive. AS

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