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BLACK NIGHTS 2019 First Feature Competition

Review: Isaac

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- Jurgis Matulevičius emerges as a talent to watch thanks to a film that’s bound to ruffle some nationalistic feathers

Review: Isaac

Chosen to be a part of Tallinn Black Nights’ First Feature Competition, Jurgis MatulevičiusIsaac [+see also:
trailer
interview: Jurgis Matulevičius
film profile
]
actually feels like one of the most assured films shown at this year’s Estonian festival, full stop. And it’s also the most surprising, as although the opening scene alone, shot in the increasingly popular black and white and depicting the horrors of the Second World War in one continuous take – think Goodfellas’ Copacabana sequence, but with a pig and more screaming – might be suggesting a familiar, post-Ida [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
film profile
]
universe, things quickly take an unexpected turn. This is not the story you have already seen, Matulevičius seems to be saying, to which we would add: but it’s the one you might actually want to.

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Based on a short story by Antanas Škėma and the first-ever movie to tackle his writing, Isaac covers quite a lot of ground. There is deep trauma that can’t be fixed with some quick and easy solution, an attempt to deal with the past of one’s country, something that seems to be becoming increasingly problematic these days, and secrets that destroy intimate relationships, much more effectively than any explosive revelation ever would. Oh, and a mostly clueless film director fresh off his trip to the USA, Gediminas (Dainius Gavenonis), who somehow tries to capture it all in the 1960s, always coming back to the exact same spot: the Lietūkis Garage Massacre of 1941, this film’s bitter Proust’s madeleine moment. It’s one that his friend, Andrius (Aleksas Kazanavicius), knows more about than he would care to admit, least of all to himself – or to his wife Elena (Severija Janušauskaitė), at this point becoming ever more distant by the hour.

Moving in between decades, characters, genres, hearsay and memories that might have lost all their colour but are still very much present, annoyingly so – like a tiny splinter under one’s fingernail that just won’t come out – Isaac is not a film that can be watched on autopilot. It demands actual work, but it’s the kind of work this writer welcomed, for one, curious to see what might be coming next. Also because while it might be (justifiably) lauded for Matulevičius’ complex portrayal of war, or rather its lasting effects, spreading like locusts and just as ravenous, it’s also a pretty impressive drama, with its odd central trio sharing an easy chemistry, visibly damaged and yet refusing to give up, even though just about every attempt at establishing some kind of connection falls short or quickly descends into darkness. Matulevičius observes it all rather calmly, but his balanced focus is worthy of praise. In his film, war is not a man’s game once again, thank God; it’s a downfall felt by all of mankind.

This makes it more than just a brilliant debut, as such an expression always seems to downplay its subject’s merits a little – it’s a brilliant film. It includes one of the most on-point lines this writer has heard in a long time, an answer to all of the “controversies” surrounding new titles that seem intent on finally ripping off the bandages that entire nations have been piling on their wounds. “We are filming history here,” says Gediminas, trying to calm down a panicked extra who refuses to act in a scene that she considers too vulgar. “Is history indecent?” You have no idea.

Isaac is a Lithuanian production staged by Stasys Baltakis for Film Jam.

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