Saturday, October 25, 2008

Vella Kalpi (The Devil's Servants)

Comedy/Adventure. 1970.
Directed by Aleksandrs Leimanis.
Based on novels by Rutku Tevs.
Written by Janis Anerauds.

This is my first memory of a Latvian film. I recently saw it again. Unfortunately, it has not aged well. The cinematography is average at best, the sound is tinny, the story over-blown, and the acting hammy. About the only part of it that doesn't seem to have aged is Raymonds Pauls soundtrack. Then again, if you aren't a big fan of Pauls that isn't much to crow about either. Despite all of that, I still loved it and always will.
You have to take this film in its context. You have to see it through the eyes of an 8 year old, sitting in a darkened theater eyes glued to the screen. An eight year old who was growing up in a confusing world not of his own making. Trying to make sense of a contradictory existence that adults only whispered about. I was a Latvian and I lived in Latvia, but I lived in Soviet Latvia. Up to this point my mythology only contained Soviet heroes. They might have spoken Latvian. They might have been Latvian, but at the core they were Soviets. This was the first time I had ever seen Latvian heroes and I couldn't tear my eyes from the screen.
Basically, Vella Kalpi, is a swashbuckler. The film itself is based on the stories of Rutku Tevs, but anyone familiar with the many variants of the "Three Musketeers" will recognize the plot. It's about three young men who, motivated by both circumstance and national pride, rise up to protect Riga from a foreign invasion. They do this with strength and cunning, exhibiting all of the traits that we consider to be Latvian: Hard work, loyalty, and a sense of humor.
I am sure that the film was supposed to reinforce the Soviet ideals of being vigillant to bourgeoisie ideals, our heroes are strapping farm lads with simple tastes and simple needs, and all of the villians were either nobility or foreigners, but all I could see was Latvian heroes doing great deeds with a great bit of panache. This is who I wanted to be when I grew up.
It was my first exposure to Latvian role models outside of my own family. You might think it hyperbole, but you have to understand the total control that the Soviets had over all media. The goal of Soviet media was to produce good Soviets and not good Latvians. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that this movie managed to bypass of all of that and while on the surface seems to reinforce Soviet mythology, at its heart it is about Latvian identity and Latvian ideals

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