Monday, June 29, 2009

Antti-Jussi Annila's Sauna (2008)

Set in 1585, Antti-Jussi Annila's Sauna (2008), at the conclusion of a twenty-five year war between Finland and Russia, with the former under the crown of Sweden, is about two brothers, Erik (Ville Virtanen) and Knut (Tommi Eronen). Knut is the younger and a cartographer, with the promise of a professorship in Stockholm upon completion of his task. Erik is war-torn, tired, and often violent. Erik and Knut represent the Swedish crown in the mapping and creation of a new border between Finland and Russia. They are joined on their expedition by three Russian emissaries, led by Semensky (Viktor Klimenko). There is hostility between the two sides, but they are united honorably in their task for both of their respective countries. The majority of the hostility that the party encounters is from the locals in the various villages in and around the new border. Eventually, the party comes upon an isolated village in the dead center of a swamp where a sauna serves as its centerpiece.Previous to Erik and Knut joining their Russian compatriots to complete the border marking, the pair stopped with a local family, a father and his teenage daughter. One evening, Erik notices that a shelf looks recently emptied, as if the father and the daughter are hiding something. Erik confronts the father and forces him to show the wares. In a cellar, there is a stockpile of rations. Erik pulls the father back to the cabin, while Knut stays below with the young daughter. Knut makes an attempt to kiss the young lady, but in fear, she covers her face and cowers. Knut locks the girl in the cellar and finds Erik having murdered the father. Erik claims it was self-defense. (Semensky later says to Erik, who dons glasses for his poor eyesight, that although his glasses give him the air of civility, they do not hide his eyes which miss the war and the opportunity to continue violent acts.) Knut says nothing upon finding his brother having bloodily killed the man, as Erik mutters only the words, "seventy-three." Knut tells his brother that he's locked the girl in the cellar, and Erik says that he will let her out.
After meeting with the Russians, Erik and Knut begin their long journey towards the North. Knut sees at several intervals what looks like a young woman in the distance, and eventually, Knut tells Erik that he believes the young girl from the cellar is following them. Erik shocks Knut with his revelation: he never let her out. Knut says that they must go back, but Erik vehemently disagrees: they must trudge forward and complete this task for the crown. Knut is quite wrecked with guilt for the girl's trapping; however, he hides a deeper guilt (that Erik is able to later pull out of him) about the girl. The five come upon a swamp. Semensky says lets go around it and split the middle of the swamp with the border. Erik, characteristically and hostilely, disagrees: give the whole of the swamp to Sweden or trek forward. As they move through the swamp, the party spies an sauna eerily out of the blue and come into the neighboring village. The village has seventy-three residents, only one of whom is a child, and are all unnaturally clean.Antti-Jussi Annila's Sauna is a gorgeous-looking film and really represents how technology can be used well with cinema. Only with the new-finagled cameras can the lines in Semensky's and Erik's face be captured: just by looking at the detail on their skin can the viewer tell that these gentlemen have seen very hard times. The titular sauna looks oddly clinical yet tainted, as the mold and mildew is around the dark opening. The dying vegetation and the cold weather are not just shown in glorious detail, but the detail is so overwhelming that the viewer can almost feel it. Cinematography aside, Sauna presents a dense and maybe esoteric theme of seemingly redemption and cleansing, tied to the titular sauna. What is certain, however, are the stellar performances by Ville Virtanen and Tommi Eronen, as Erik and Knut, respectively, two very complex characters. Their fraternal relationship is so genuine, and despite the often totally bleak nature of the film, their love never wavers. Virtanen and Eronen give very emotional and sometimes vulnerable performances, which alone make Sauna worth viewing. The David Lynch-like mystery involving the sauna and the nearby village is intriguing. I sat through the film twice before blogging: once as a passive viewer and the second more critical and sensitive, attempting to link the the themes and pick up clues. I do not believe I was wholly successful but I will certainly revisit Sauna again. Sauna is above all a very disorienting film: sometimes real-world-like harsh violence combined with darkly ethereal and creepy imagery and elements. A tight and focused film, densely-packed, richly-detailed, and a curious gem.

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