Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dzivite (Life)

Drama. 1990.
Directed by Aivars Freimanis.
Written by Aivars Freimanis and Janis Peters.
Starring: Valdemars Zandbergs, Leonids Grabovskis, Velta Line and Indra Brike.

“Life”, as its title suggests, is grand in scope. It tells the life story of Krisjans Barons, the primary cataloguer of the Dainas. It also, in the context of Barons’ life’s work, attempts to tell the tale of Latvia’s emerging national identity and the men and women who brought a people, who had a distinct identity for thousands of years but no national identity as such, into the age of nations.
Where in “Abols Upe” director Ivars Freimanis’ attempt at combining a documentary style with a fictional story did not always work, in “Life” it works to near perfection. Perhaps its because the subject matter of “Life” lends itself to experimentation and a non-traditional approach. Also, by adding other stylistic elements such as animation and footage of folklorists performing songs and rituals from rich tapestry of Latvian folklore he adds to the narrative element of the story, captures the mystical and spiritual sides, and makes a biographical story resound in its lyricism.
Like the film, the dainas themselves serve a multiple purpose. They are primarily folk songs, but also a storehouse of the collective national wisdom and ethos. They are a combination of mythology, practical advice and religion. Barons’ effort to catalogue them, he collected over 200,000 dainas, came at a time when Latvia and Latvians were under the rule of Russia and Germany, and like many other nations at the time, were either emerging from or straining against the rule of empires.
Freimanis tells his story from the end to the beginning. Barons’, ably played by Valdemars Zandbergs and Leonids Grabovskis, in the twilight of his years is reflecting on what his life’s work has meant and whether or not the incredible sacrifices that were made to accomplish it was worth it. The film jumps back and forth in time, showing Barons as a man struggling between the choices available to Latvians of the period, torn between empires and cultural, as well as, political monoliths that demand obedience and offer little choice other than assimilation.
This tapestry is further filled out by the performances of Indra Brike and Velta Line, as Barons’ wife Darta, who sacrificed as much, if not more, in this epic effort. In Darta we see the effort and price that most of us, while not great players in the struggle for Latvian identity, had to pay to bring it to its fruition.
“Life” does drag on in parts, it’s about three hours long, but over all manages to accomplish what it sets out to do. It captures the story of a man and the people and nation that he grew to symbolize.

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