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GOCRITIC! Karlovy Vary 2019

GoCritic! Review: Nova Lituania

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- A peculiar slice of alternative history is served up in an East of the West contender from the Baltic

GoCritic! Review: Nova Lituania
Aleksas Kazanavičius in Nova Lituania

Lithuanian writer-director Karolis Kaupinis’s feature debut Nova Lituania [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Karolis Kaupinis
film profile
]
, which premiered at KVIFF in the East of the West competition, plays with the idea of alternative histories, backup homelands and unconventional visionaries, but doesn’t quite succeed in blending those elements smoothly together. Largely thanks to its unusual subject-matter, the black-and-white film will nevertheless probably have a solid run in medium-range European festivals and might even win some awards around the Baltics.

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This 96-minute picture tells the story of an eccentric geography professor Feliksas (Aleksas Kazanavičius) in the late 1930s who, sensing the upcoming political turmoil of WW2, has the wild idea of creating a “backup” homeland on a distant island. Trying to make that idea a reality, he searches for allies in high places as he turns to the Prime Minister of the state (Vaidotas Martinaitis). After suffering a heart attack and being discharged from his position, the now former PM becomes invested in this idea and the two men start to bond over their strange goal.

“Emptiness is our worst enemy“ says Feliksas as he elaborates why the low density of Lithuanian population makes it prone for encroachment or colonisation from its neighbouring giants. We sense his own horror vacui as he starts to get uncomfortable around his wife Veronika’s (Rasa Samuolytė) notion of emptying the work room of unnecessary belongings for her mother’s arrival. Veronika’s mother Kotryna (Eglė Gabrėnaitė) largely motivates the subplot by being a nuisance in their home with her apparent disapproval of Feliksas and his inability to provide her with grandchildren. As the film progresses, it depicts the both men’s need for escape from their individual realities, manifesting itself as a sort children’s game - one consisted of imagining completely made up worlds.

The photography is wonderfully orchestrated by Simonas Glinskis, with the stiffness of its impeccable visual harmony sometimes broken up with a hand-held camera movement. The shifts in black and white gradient from the extremely dark to extremely light serve to accommodate the given atmosphere or character and are cleverly implemented. The Prime Minister’s scenes are usually presented in chiaroscuro, in anticipation of the unpleasant events to arrive, while the professor’s eccentricity electrifies and brightens up spaces around him. Nova Lituania’s crisp monochromatic look resembles Pawel Pawlikowski’s works—notably last year’s Cold War [+see also:
film review
trailer
Q&A: Pawel Pawlikowski
film profile
]
, and especially during the scene that depicts a performance of traditional Lithuanian flute music. The aspect-ratio is likewise boxy, conveying the claustrophobia Feliksas experiences and projects onto Lithuania. Another recent monochrome forerunner is François Ozon’s Frantz [+see also:
film review
trailer
Q&A: François Ozon
film profile
]
(2016) also deals with intertwining of war and private matters, in a story set after the First World War. It’s too diffused, spatially and temporally, and too early to call this any kind of a wave, but these films represent a phenomenon of a bitter nostalgia – both in terms of filmic presentation and turbulent history, presumably caused by the rising political instability in Europe and the world.

The diffusion is a key theme in the professor’s idea –“the emptiness attracts fullness” he states, which is why the empty Lithuania is not safe from its more populated neighbours (Lithuania is at that moment bordering with Germany on one side and Poland on the other, which would soon after become dominated by the Soviet Union).

Diffusion is the key element of Kaupinis’ narrative as well: as the subplots that should complement the main plot serve more as a distraction and diffuse it by making it insufficiently elaborated and plausible. In some ways, this film could be read as a battle with high expectations of masculinity the two men didn’t meet and which they need to escape: one of them not able to create a child and the other being servile, passive and not prone to war (as opposed to the president of the state) which consequentially led to losing his position of power.

But that message is not entirely conveyed; the rhythm of the film becomes repetitive and the audience is often explicitly told (by the characters) about the state of things, making them less credible and authentic. Kaupinis, with MA in Comparative Politics, has managed to successfully transfer a bygone era’s political atmosphere. On the other hand, he has elected to tackle a story which requires nuanced and experienced storytelling very early in his career, unlike the aforementioned Ozon or Pawlikowski who were relative veterans in filmmaking when they essayed similar terrain. With his intriguing ideas and evident artistic ambitions on his display here, Kaupinis is nevertheless an emerging European filmmaker to watch in the years to come.

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