Dir: Antti-Jussi Annila. Finland. 2008. 83mins.
Finnish director Antti-Jussi Annila (Jade Warrior) invokes slavishly two masters, Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick, with this intensely baroque and religion-inflected period horror movie. The severely grotesque atmosphere and mannered style suffocate the promising ideas and results in a dramatically incoherent work more punishing than frightening.
Consistently echoing two hallmarks of modern movies, Stalker and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie also borrows heavily from the visual palette of Ridley Scott’s opening section of Gladiator. To be sure, Annila never suffers from a lack of confidence. The widescreen photography is boldly muscular and the movie contains some strikingly composed, isolated portraiture. This is also the kind of work where every image constitutes a cry for attention. The stylization is too blunt and the director never quite finds his own personality or sensibility to bear on the increasingly overwrought material.
Commercially, the movie’s best prospects are clearly in Scandinavia and in the Eastern European markets that made a great success of the Night Watch cycle. Internationally, the movie’s best exposure is likely in the niche programming of horror-themed festivals.
The story’s unfolds in 1595; the action follows the uneasy truce following 25-years of brutal war between Russia and Sweden. Two Finnish-born brothers are part of a Russo-Swedish commission dispatched to the outreaches of the disputed territories to outline new border accords. Eric (Virtanen) is a brutal warrior-nationalist clearly damaged by the atrocities he has committed. Knut (Eronen) is the intellectual, a rationalist interested in science and order.
Already unhinged by the disfigured cries of a beautiful young girl they mistreated during their journey, the brothers are increasingly undone by the inexplicable actions and irrational behavior afflicting a strange and mysterious village located in the swamps. The movie’s title parallels the oblong black monolith in Kubrick’s masterpiece. It is a white, columned, marble structure that rises out of the shallow edge of a river. It provides the movie’s most intriguing image, a reverse silhouette of the interior that is the source of either absolution or complete annihilation.
As a horror movie, the film has an unusual provenance. Despite the movie’s late 16th century setting, the visual look is unmistakably medieval. In the opening, Annila impressively draws on landscape, weather and the horizontal line to create some visually arresting moments. The tone is both fractured and overemphatic. The suggestively eerie moments of violence and retribution of the opening are never adequately woven into the sketched framework that underpins the daily existence of the mysterious villagers.
As the story becomes more muddled and murky, the direction becomes more violent and unstable. From the too-literate rhapsodizing of the voice-over to the serious works of art the images are poached from, the movements, imagery and storytelling prove ultimately too solemn and pretentious to create a compelling and satisfactory world of its own.
International sales agent
Blind Spot Pictures