Saturday, October 25, 2008

Rigas Sargi (The Defenders of Riga)


Drama. 2007.
Directed by Aigars Grauba.
Written by Lisa Eichhorn, Andrejs Ekis, Aigars Grauba, Valentin Jemeljanov, Andris Kolbergs, and Andris Kolbergs.
Starring: Uldis Dumpis, Arturs Skrastinš, Elita Klavina and Janis Reinis.


Its not often the Latvians, like most of the smaller nations of the world, get to tell their side of the story and when they do the tendency is to make up for lost time. Aigars Grauba’s Rigas Sargi (The Defenders of Riga) sets an ambitious agenda, the retelling of Latvia’s 1919 war of Independence against the forces of Russian General Pavel Bermont-Avalov and German General Graf R├╝diger von der Goltz. Defenders focuses on the pivotal battle for Riga and the events leading up to it when Latvian forces, outnumbered 5 to 1, held on to Riga on November 11, 1919. The date is now celebrated as Lacplesa Diena (Bearslayer’s Day), Latvia’s equivalent of the USA’s Veterans Day.
Like Grauba’s Baiga Vasara (Dangerous Summer) this is a big budget (at least by Latvian standards) crowd pleaser which doesn’t aim for either subtlety or historical accuracy. It aims squarely at its primarily domestic audience and plays on some of their most firmly held mythology and themes and as such delivers on all accounts. Defenders to date is Latvia’s highest domestically grossing film.
The events of November 1919 are framed by a love story between Martins (Janis Reinis) and Elza (Elita Klavina). Janis, an idealistic everyman, leaves his Elza on their wedding date to answer the Tsar’s call to defend the Russian empire (of which Latvia was a part of at the time) against German forces. As that war draws to a close Martins returns to Latvia, which by now has declared independence, and once again finds himself in the middle of a war. Elza unfortunately has gotten tired of waiting for him. While still retaining some strong feelings for him, her life, and she along with it, has changed and she’s no longer sure of her love for the idealistic Martins, who once again is preparing to leave her behind to fight in a war which most likely can cost him his life.
In Defenders Grauba again displays his talent for knowing his target audience and which emotional buttons to push. And push them he does none too subtly. The film’s characters come across as two dimensional caricatures and the script sets the story in the starkest black and white, good v. bad, us against them, terms. The us are heroic and noble. The them are either murderous goons, incompetent buffoons or devious manipulators. This is not unusual in war films, but unfortunately, while extremely satisfying for the us portion of the audience, the film probably will not find much of an audience for those who have no emotional stake in either side. Having broken the box office domestically its highly unlikely that the film will find much of an audience outside of Latvia.
Grauba, as in Vasara, certainly knows how to deliver a punch line, but the set up is unfortunately lacking. And it’s the set up which makes punch lines most effective. His actors don’t have much to work with, or perhaps its better to say that they have too much to work with. The script expects them to play to the last row in the house, and at that to the one person who sits in that row who is hard of hearing and near sighted, and play they do. The cast delivers as well as it can. There is real chemistry between the actors and when the script works, usually during its smaller moments which are unfortunately too few, the story comes alive and transcends its two dimensional themes.
Overall, Defenders is a better film than Vasara and Grauba certainly shows promise. If not necessarily as a writer and director then perhaps as a producer. As a side note, it would be interesting to see Grauba working as a producer for such Latvian directors as Varis Brasla (Ziemassvetku Jampadracis) or Viesturs Kairiss (Leaving by the Way). By Latvian standards this is an epic film with a budget of $4 million and Grauba milks it for its worth. While by Hollywood’s standards, where the average cost of a film can run over $50,000,000, this wouldn’t qualify it even as a low budget indy, but by local standards its about as good as it can get. Too bad that once it leaves the friendly confines of its domestic market it will be lost on the global stage as a solid B film which international audiences wont find of much of interest since they have no emotional investment in the subject matter.

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