Saturday, October 25, 2008

Vecas Pagastmajas Misteria (The Mystery of the Old Parish House)

Drama. 2000.
Directed and Written by Janis Streics
Starring: Renars Kaupers, Ivars Kalnins, Arturs Skrastins, Aurelija Anuzite, Eduards Pavuls, Andris Berzins, Mirdza Martinsone, Olga Drege and Inese Saulite.

It is not often that I feel I have to watch a film more than once. Not because I missed some important plot point, but because I am not sure I liked or disliked the film. I am still not sure. The films of Janis Streics have that effect on me.
“Mystery” is loosely based on real life events that took place in Krimulda, Latvia. It tells the story of an aging KGB agent Eduards Pavuls) who is forced to live the rest of his life in a house in whose basement he had tortured and murdered people during the summer of 1941. Yet, the film itself is really about much more than that. It is about filmmaking and contemporary life and the notions of guilt and responsibility.
The film is told in three parts. The first, “Mea Culpa”, is a film within a film. It is about the screening of the KGB agent’s story. In the film within the film, the KGB agent hires two construction workers (Renars Kaupers and Andris Berzins) to brick up the door to the basement to prevent the ghosts of all those he had killed from coming after him. As the two workers discover the true nature of the job they resolve to avenge all those who had died by killing the Chekist, but eventually end up saving him from killing himself. Unfortunately, no one, other than the director (Arturs Skrastins), likes the finished product and it is decided that additional scenes need to be shot to improve it
The second part, “Agnus Dei”, is about the shooting of an additional horror scene to in which the ghosts, accompanied by a spectre of Jesus nailed to a cross, chase the Chekist. One of the people hanging around the shoot, a filthy drunken bum looking for a free drink, unbeknownst to anyone is the actual real life KGB agent. During a break in the filming, while no one is watching, he nails the actor (Kaupers) playing Jesus to the actual cross.
The last part of the film, “Tuba Mirum”, is about the relationship between the young actor (Kaupers), the film’s producer (Ivars Kalnins) and the woman they both love (Aurelija Anuzite).
It all comes to a head as the sadistic producer tries to rape Anuzite, Kaupers comes to her rescue, and with the help of the ghosts of the victims of the old parish house, they triumph over all.
The major flaw of “Mystery” is that so much of the story is dependent on the fact that the film within the film is supposed to be flawed and we spend too much time watching a bad movie being made. It’s not that this is a bad idea. Films about bad films are not a new genre. I can think of two examples, “Ed Wood” and “Living in Oblivion”, that worked. However, neither of those films tried to focus on anything other than the basic premise. Streics tires to reach far beyond that by also making “Mystery” about the true life events of what happened to Latvia under Soviet occupation and all of the real and imagined scars that they left on the Latvian psyche. If he had focused on either story the film would have been much stronger. By trying to combine the two he succeeds in telling neither.
This is not to say that “Mystery” is a bad film. There are many parts of it that work and others that are downright profound. Streics’ combination of mysticism with realistic themes and execution show a great deal of talent and depth. The three parts all complement each other. You have layers upon layers of symbolism here. The real life events are often more absurd and surreal than their celluloid representation. Reality and fantasy blur and complement each other to the point where you can’t tell them apart. All in all, while some of the parts might not work, the sum is greater than the whole.

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