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November (2018)
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by Jay Seaver

"A genuinely gorgeous fantasy the likes of which you may never have seen."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Rainer Sarnet's Estonian fantasy opens with some familiar, but beautifully-lensed, stark images of life in and around a poor, pre-industrial village, and just as you're starting to form an image of what this movie will be like, it drops some utterly bizarre fantasy elements into the mix as a family's kratt goes berserk from lack of work, stealing the cow and trying to lift it like a helicopter before having its mind blown after being told to make a ladder out of bread like a computer trying to parse illogic in an original-series "Star Trek" episode. If you've never heard of a kratt before, it's a jaw-dropping display of WTFery with which to open the film. For those raised on the Disney-fied versions fairy tales that came out of Western Europe, Eastern European folklore is WEIRD.

Weirder still - Sarnet basically spends the movie accepting its premises while still allowing some modern vernacular to make its way in. The crossroads demon is neither regal, creepy, nor mischievous, for instance; he's a loudmouthed jerk who can be fooled but not pushed around. Witchcraft works, the plague is a shapeshifting creature that can be made to swear oaths, and departed relatives enjoy a nice sauna on All Soul's Day. It's a world where medieval superstitions have some basis in fact but which is fascinating because the people in it, from infatuated young Liina (Rea Les) and Hans (Jörgen Liik) on up, are all people we can relate to. In some ways, it seems like an attempt at partial immersion - the twenty-first century audience that buys a ticket to this sort of film is by its nature well-removed from the superstitions that ruled these people's lives (and which often still hold sway in areas where life has not changed that much), and might have a hard time seeing both the absurdity of the situation and the very real pressures the people involved faced.

It is, of course, not always a happy situation - life is cruel and requires grabbing for anything you can get in this place, so that person you understand is probably ready to screw over someone else you kind of like. There's a weary acceptance that takes some of the edge off, though, and enough genuine love in the hearts of Liina and Hans to give the audience some hope. Things might be simpler if the pair just loved each other, but Sarnet (working from a novel by Andrus Kivirahk) is not going to make it that easy - though Liina loves Hans, Hans is smitten with the new Baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis), a beautiful but sickly young German girl who has her own issues, while Liina has been betrothed to a local merchant. Indeed, there are enough intrigues and background characters that while the film plays out in a relaxed-enough manner - no scene is too frantic and the editing never seems rushed - the audience may at times wish for a little less, because there's just not time for everything to get its full due, even if all the details are intriguing in their own right.

Still, it's not hard to pull for Liina, despite the insanity around her and the fact that she's pining for someone who arguably doesn't deserve her; Liina may not be the wide-eyed naif that she is often meant to evoke, but Rea Lest generally manages to highlight the best of her. Liina may steal and dabble in witchcraft, casually defending herself with lies on occasion, but Lest brings out just enough frustration at the world she lives in and determination to find some sort of happiness to let her remain the film's heart, while also playing well off everyone, from Arvo Kukumägi as her greedy stepfather to Mari Abel as her mother's ghost. Jörgen Liik doesn't get so rich a character, but he captures Hans's youthful folly appealingly, while Jette Loona Hermanis delivers a sweetly sad disconnection as the object of his affection, even when she appears to be mad.

It's also a downright gorgeous film - cinematographer Mart Taniel shoots in exceptionally crisp black and white and finds compositions that are striking in how well they use the entirety of the screen or sink into it, while the rest of the filmmakers find bits of life to inject into what could be a boringly grimy setting, with even the Baron's mansion majestic even if it seems a more than bit run-down. But eventually, you can't help but come back to the casual wonder of the fantastic, with the makeshift kratts animated as what looks like fantastic puppetry and simple yet striking effects building a magical, if dangerous, world.

I gasped at what I perceived as invention a lot, although I don't know how much is the case - though Sarnet is reaching back to the Estonia of a couple centuries ago, you see this kind of strangeness in Baba Yaga's chicken-legged hut, the films of Jan Svankmajer and Andrei Tarkovsky, or even those weird Polish movie posters people periodically rediscover. This material has always been out in the world, but only rarely placed right in front of our eyes, and I hope like heck that this gets a fair-sized release, because it's romantic, tragic, funny, and exhilarating to discover.

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originally posted: 10/20/17 08:43:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Rainer Sarnet

Written by
  Rainer Sarnet

  Rea Lest
  Jörgen Liik
  Dieter Laser
  Taavi Eelmaa
  Katariina Unt

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