Saturday, October 25, 2008

Limuzins Janu Nakts Krasa (Limousine the Color of St. John's Night)


Comedy. 1981.
Directed by Janis Streics.
Written by Mara Svire.
Starring: Lilita Berzina, Uldis Dumpis, Liga Liepina, Romualds Ancans and Evalds Valters.

“Limuzins Janu Nakts Krasa” (Limousine the Color of St. John’s Night) is perhaps Latvians' favorite film. Like the American Christmas tradition of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it has become a staple on Latvia’s TV screens around Jani, St. John’s day, the Latvian celebration of the summer solstice. Written by Mara Svire it is director Janis Streic’s best film.
It is a film that can be watched on many levels. At the surface it is a broad comedy with universally recognizable characters and themes that are also uniquely Latvian.
Aunt Mirta (Lilita Berzina) wins a car in a lottery and faster than you can say “prieka”, relatives and acquaintances descend on poor Mirta’s house like locust. There’s her nephew (Uldis Dumpis) who, with wife and son in tow, gets off a tour bus in mid excursion and hitchhikes to Mirta’s house for a visit the moment he hears of her windfall. There’s her former daughter in law, with husband and daughter along, who pop in for a visit out of the blue. Even her next door neighbors, hard working and earnest farmers, are suddenly more helpful and attentive. None of this is lost on Mirta and she makes the most of it.
It’s a very Latvian film. There’s a Latvian folk tale about a poor traveler who stops by a farmstead. Being hungry he asks the farmer’s wife for some food and she promises him a meal in exchange for work. The labor is backbreaking, but he does it without complaint. When he finishes, the stingy farmer’s wife tries to renegotiate. Pleading poverty she offers him some thin soup. He doesn’t complain, but as he sips the watery brew he remarks that the soup is missing something. It needs something to go with the broth. The farmer’s wife apologizes that she has nothing else to offer. All she has left is an old ax. The ax will be good he replies. The farmer’s wife is incredulous, but he reassures her that in his travels he has often had ax soup and its one of the best meals he has ever had. You just have to know how to prepare it properly and it will be as tender and savory as the finest cut of meat. The farmer’s wife seeing an opportunity to make something out of nothing drops the ax in the pot, but no matter how long they wait, the ax stays, well, as hard as an ax. The traveler suddenly remembers that the last time he had ax soup it also had some potatoes in it. Maybe that’s what’s wrong? The potatoes tenderized the ax. Unfortunately we have no potatoes. And just as suddenly the farmer’s wife remembers that she might have some potatoes after all. Into the pot they go. The ax is still as hard. Maybe it was the carrots? There’s carrots. Cabbage? Here’s cabbage. On and on and into the pot they all go. Of course the ax never becomes any softer, but in the meantime the traveler has himself quite the meal.
“Limuzins” is like that folk tale in reverse. It’s the poor old farmer Mirta who exploits the greed of her guests. It doesn’t take long before they are cutting her grass, building her a new cellar and doing all of her cooking and cleaning. All begging at the chance for being the one’s to end up with the car.
The film can also be viewed as one of those typical Soviet morality plays about bourgeoisie values being a corrupter of the human spirit. However, most importantly it’s a film that took this very superficial party line and, between the lines, managed to pillory and parody that very same Soviet system. Where else but in the Soviet Union would an 80 year old woman who can’t drive would end up with a car that she has no use for and doesn’t really want, while everyone else has to scrape and then wait for years to end up with one? Even the title itself is a sarcastic reference to a car that was the Soviet equivalent of a Ford Pinto in a color that can be best described as off-white.
“Limuzins” works on all of those levels. Like most of Streic’s films its about characters and relationships. Its filled with humor and warmth and great performances, but it is it’s ability to amuse while parodying a system that didn’t tolerate being parodied that is perhaps its greatest achievement.

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