Saturday, October 25, 2008

Monotonija (Monotony)

Drama. 2007.
Writen and directed by Juris Poskus.
Starring: Iveta Pole, Varis Pinkis, Madara Melberga and Artuss Kaimins.

Juris Poskus’ debut full length feature film Monotonija (Monotony), the Perspectives Award winner for first and second time filmmakers at the 29th Moscow International Film Festival, and a nominee for best full length feature film in this year’s Lielais Kristaps, can be best described as a Latvian Dogme film as done by the English director Mike Leigh. The focus of the Dogme film movement, headed by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in the mid 90’s, was to return to a more naturalistic style of filmmaking, one free of special effects, artistic flourishes or genre. It produced such diverse and notable films as Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune, Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. Mike Leigh, the director of such well known and respected films as Secrets and Lies, Naked and Life is Sweet, is known for his improvisational style which relies heavily on his actors to create character, improvise dialogue and develop the plot. While Monotonija doesn’t exactly reach the lofty standards set by the aforementioned films, it comes close and, if nothing else, establishes Poskus as a talent to watch on the Latvian film scene.
The film is an improvised collaboration between Poskus, the director of the 2003 Lielais Kristaps winner for best documentary Bet Stunda Nak (But the Hour is Near), and actors from Jaunais Rigas Teatris (the New Riga Theater). They started out with only one precondition. Each character in the film needed to have a dream. “We wanted to make a movie about everyday banality where there is no big story. We just wanted to show small guy story that usually are not being shot in movies,” said Poskus. What results is the story of a girl from a small Latvian village who leaves the routine monotony of small town life for what eventually turns out to be the routine monotony of the big city.
As the film opens Ilze (Iveta Pole) is part of a crew of cannery workers who still use old fashioned methods to catch fish which wouldn’t seem out of place hundreds of years ago. As we follow Ilze through her daily routine we are introduced to a village where life and time seems to have stood still. It’s a place where people still chop wood by hand and have to use that wood to heat their houses. It’s a place where people still get their milk straight for the cow and rely on horses as their beasts of burden. It’s a drab and grey dead end place with little future or promise for the young.
Eventually Ilze comes across a newspaper advertisement for an open audition for a film shooting in Riga and after mulling it over with her boyfriend Ojars (Varis Pinkis) leaves him and her village behind for a shot at the big time in the big city. Arriving in Riga she moves in with her cousin Linda (Madara Melberga), fails the audition, has a fling with Archie (Artuss Kaimins), reconciles with Ojars, breaks up with Ojars, finds a new job and, in short, falls into the routine monotony of big city life.
Monotonija’s greatest strength is in capturing the zeitgeist of present day Latvia as it continues emerging from the shadow of the Soviet Union and into independence and the present of the European Union. It’s a place where the young often find themselves with few options and where the future always seems to lie elsewhere. For those growing up in the rural areas it’s in the big cities. For those who are already in the big cities it’s in Ireland, and Germany, and the U.S. It’s a country whose people seem to be trapped in a vicious cycle where they are always searching for that greener grass and that greener grass is always just slightly out of reach.
Poskus documentarian’s eye serves him well and allows the actors to disappear into their characters. When it works, like during the opening sequence when we are introduced to life in Ilze’s village with virtually no dialogue, we are treated to moments of movie magic where the line between fiction and reality blurs. When it doesn’t work, like during Archie’s exercise at self-absorbed and bad joke telling, it feels forced, artificial and, well, self-absorbed. Overall, Monotonija is an interesting film filled with talented, if sometimes spotty, performances that gives us a glimpse into the present day lives and experiences of Latvian youth.

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