Estonian production is a suprise entry in the 10-film international Oscar shortlist
Dir/scr: Tanel Toom. Estonia. 2019. 149 mins.
Two farmers, one lifelong feud: Tanel Toom’s feature debut is an adaptation of a prestigious Estonian work of fiction, studied by the country’s school children with – by all accounts – a certain degree of dread. Toom, Oscar-nominated in the shorts category for 2011’s The Confession, turns a 550-page book into an equally weighty 149-minute film, resulting in another Oscar appearance for him and producer Ivo Felt in the 10-film international feature shortlist for the 92nd Academy Awards.
Ivo Felt’s films have done markedly well with US awards bodies, particularly the Oscars
Backed by the government as part of the country’s centenary celebrations and having broken box office records in Estonia, Truth And Justice has been picked up by Films Boutique on the wind of the Oscar announcement, although it failed to reach the final five. It’s the best possible outcome for a dour, leaden film which, although undeniably carrying a powerful sense of gravitas, would seem to have limited commercial appeal outside the domestic marketplace and the broader side of the festival circuit (it has shown in Busan, Tallinn, and Palm Springs).
A easily-identifiable morality tale which has global iterations wherever man has struggled to dominate the land and his own nature, Truth And Justice is a classically-told, DW-Griffiths-style riposte to the more modern films on that Oscar shortlist. (The book was written Anton Hansen Tammsaare in 1926.) Toom’s camera is fixed; the silhouette of man against the widescreen landscape is favoured. Set in a rural swamp of 1872, the menfolk hulk and sulk while women are beaten and impregnated. Religion grows to choke off emotion and reason. The struggle is never-ending, through the haze of summer and the frozen winters; the questions of family and sacrifice and generational aspirations in a narrow-minded community inflame a text which would find a mirror in the struggle of migrants in their wagons to dominate the American West, for example, or the dustbowl dramas of the Great Depression.
The text is classic. Andres (newcomer Priit Loog) is the handsome, buoyant new owner of flooded land called Robber’s Rise which he has bought despite the misgivings of his beautiful wife Kroot (Maiken Schmidt). Apart from being a rather unattractive swamp, Robber’s Rise comes with a spiteful neighbour attached, the drunken, cuning Peauru (Priit Voigemast). Andres believes that with hard work, and the help of God’s justice, he can turn the land around for his rapidly-growing family, but there are early signs of prideful stubbornness in the man which will be borne out over the next 24 years, as Kroot dies while birthing the longed-for male heir and is replaced by the maid Mari (Ester Kuntu). All the while the exhaustively-catalogued feud between Andres and Peauru hardens, destroying all in its wake.
Produced by Ivo Felt (his films Tangerines and The Fencer have also done surprisingly well with American awards bodies, particularly the Academy Awards), Truth And Justice was clearly a significant undertaking for the small Estonian film-making sector and the shoot took place across the extremes of all four seasons. It has hit a chord with audiences there, significantly surpassing previous admissions records. Made with Euros 2.5 million from the Estonian state as part of a competition to mark the country’s founding, it has been perhaps obliged to remain overly-faithful to the much-revered source material, or at least for the tastes of international audiences. Certainly, not every run-in between Andres and Peauru, every court case, or every twist in the romance between Mari and the simple farmhand Juss (Simeoni Sundja) bears such detailed examination, although the power of Andreas’ gradual hardening in the face of adversity is undeniable.
With the action taking place over almost a quarter of a century, Truth And Justice can seem quite telegenic in its episodic approach. The contrast between a highly traditional plot and visual approach with a more modern, throbbing score from Mihkel Zilmer is notably effective.
Production company: Allfilm
International sales: Films Boutique, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Ivo Felt
Screenplay: Tanel Toom, from the novel by Anton Hansen Tammsaare
Cinematography: Rein Kotov
Production design: Jaagup Roomet
Editing: Tambet Tasuja
Music: Mihkel Zilmer
Main cast: Priit Loog, Priit Võigemast, Maiken Schmidt, Simeoni Sundja, Ester Kuntu