A Film a Week is a weekly column on this blog, run on Sunday for our English-language readers and friends, presenting usually local or European festival films to a wider audience. Every review is directly written and not translated.
Note #2: This review has been developed through the NisiMasa workshop on this year's edition of Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
Latvia, Czech Republic, Finland
Directed by: Viesturs Kairiss
In the year of 1940 Latvia was occupied by Soviet forces, and so were the other two independent Baltic states, as a part of Ribbentrop-Molotov pact signed the year earlier. Fearing German invasion and the lack of loyalty among the local population, the Soviets deported tens of thousands of people, members of the previous regimes, army officers, but also everyone deemed to be bourgeois from their home states to largely uninhabited Siberian taiga. Facing the hardships of cold weather, insufficient food and hostility by Soviet forces and local Russian population, many of them never saw their home countries again. One of those strong or fortunate enough to return and live to tell the tale was Melanie, the wife of journalist Aleksandrs Vanags. Even though she returned from the exile after Stalin’s death, her memoirs were published only after the collapse of Soviet Union.
If the story sounds familiar, there is a good reason to it. Two years ago, the masterfully crafted Estonian film called In the Crosswind covered the same topic in its unique, astonishing style with long tracking shots of tableaux vivants in black and white and voice-over narration from the protagonist’s letters.
In that aspect, Latvian theatre-turned-film director Viesturs Kairiss (Leaving by the Way, The Dark Deer) takes somewhat more familiar linear narrative approach. The tone of The Chronicles of Melanie is kind of balladic, similar to national elegies, but done coarsely, without the sense of nuance. Kairiss’ theatrical background is also noticable: aiming to amplify the emotional effect at any cost, he misses the tone more than once and ends up straight on the territory of pathos.
For instance, there is a scene on the train early on, in which a mother slays her three children with a razor blade, before committing suicide. The tone of this scene is not perfect either, it is a bit melodramatic, but this moment is by far the strongest one on the emotional level. However, the problem is that after we have seen the ultimate personal tragedy and sacrifice, things cannot get any further for the rest of the running time of 120 minutes.
In that sense, The Chronicles of Melanie is not that much about our title heroine herself and her personal hardships, as she is basically the vessel for a broader, national tragedy. The story of suffering either on a personal or national level is potent enough and deserves to be filmed, but with his story-telling, Kairiss does not do any favours to Melanie, nor even the people of Latvia.
Some other aspects are far better executed than the general tone of the film. For instance, the story is well-rounded by the motive of opera at the beginning and the very end. Black and white photography emphasizes the sense of suffering. And the choice of the Swiss actress Sabine Timoteo (The Wonders) proves to be the right one, due to her emotional expressiveness. But those details are not enough to make The Chronicles of Melanie a good piece of cinema.