Pa ceļam aizejot failed to make much of an impact when it played in competition at Karlovy Vary. Andrew James Horton, however, argues it was one of the most beautiful films of the festival.
The general perception this year at this year's edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival was that the official selection was something of a damp squib. Perhaps, pundits had last year's competition, when the festival scooped Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (Amélie, 2001) for its line-up, a little too fresh in their minds, and there weren't any films that the critics could agree on as being particularly worthy of attention.
Yet, there were a number of films that played in competition that eschewed outward pizzazz and audience-pleasing for a more introspective approach. The critics didn't seem to be in the mood, though. For example, Julio Wallovits and Roger Gual's gritty and Dogma-esque Smoking Room (Spain, 2002), despite its evidently strong script and astounding performances, succeeded in completely splitting the critics (although it walked away from the awards ceremony with a Special Mention).
But at least Smoking Room actually did something to the critics, even if was just dividing them. Viesturs Kairišs's Pa ceļam aizejot (Leaving by the Way, 2001) was largely ignored, and the reviews it did receive during the festival veered markedly to the bottom of the scale. I have to wonder how much this has to do with the fact that the press screening for the film started at 8am, the earliest of any of the screenings for the journalists (which are also attended by the FIPRESCI jury). Only a handful of critics made the early start. More walked in throughout the performance (the vast majority after the first half-hour), presumably to see if the film was worth watching in full later at a public screening or at the video centre. Perhaps, those who reviewed it on the basis of only a fraction of the film were unable to grasp the overall ethereal poetry of what to me was one of the most beautiful pictures I saw at Karlovy Vary.
When father was away at sea
Nine-year-old Dauka lives under the illusion that his naval officer father is still alive. His mother, Ilga, cannot bear to tell him that he was washed overboard in an Atlantic storm and is almost certainly dead, while Ruta, the wife of the man Ilga is having an affair with, sends Dauka telegrams purporting to be from the absent parent. Ruta, who runs the village post office but is also a practising witch, uses magic to try and prevent her husband from leaving her, but it is all in vain and the deceiptful web of lies soon engulfs the isolated rural community. To complete the confusion, Līga, Dauka's younger sister, vanishes.
At a party, the misplaced passions start to boil over: Liga turns up safe and well, Ruta tries to poison Ilga but gets Liga's school teacher instead and the truth is leaked out to Dauka about his father, something confirmed to the young boy by the dead man himself who makes an appearance. Dauka in reaction to the events of the evening runs away and the film ends with him on the Baltic coast setting out into the water.
A final tragedy or a great escape?
Kairišs, working from a script by Kaspars Odiņš, spins the story out into a visually and aurally captivating piece of symbolism. Pa ceļam aizejot, Kairišs's debut working with a full-length feature, is loosely based on a Latvian children's story Dullais Dauka (Mad Dauka) about a boy who walks across the ocean to find out what is behind the horizon. In Latvia, the book is a classic and has become a metaphor for the quest for the unknown.
There's a sense of exhilaration as Dauka breaks free of the oppressive world of adults, presumably in a search that will lead him to his death but also to a spiritual purity and the side of his father. (In this, the film has slight parallels with Krzysztof Kieślowski's Bez konca / Without End, 1994, in which a wife commits suicide to be reunited with her dead husband whom in life she never realised she loved.) At the same time, Latvian critic Normunds Naumanis is right to ask readers of the daily Diena if the film "belongs to the genre of tragedy, performing a post-mortem on a rather pathetic and self-sufficient world of grown-ups [that] step by step is also swallowing children."
At a press conference, Kairišs admitted that his depiction of how people live in Latgale, the most isolated and impoverished part of Latvia, was more symbolic than realistic. Ironically, what to some viewers will be the least literal elements are those that Kairišs takes the most seriously. When asked in an interview if the dead co-exist in our world, standing alongside us, Kairišs found the proposition so obviously true that he stated that the issue was "not even worthy of discussion." Indeed, the return of Dauka's dead father is portrayed with total straight-faced naturalism and there's no break in the viewer's suspension of disbelief.
Naumanis interprets the film it terms of its colour symbolism: particularly the clash of the red of women (lips, hair, raincoats, menstrual blood) and men who wear black uniforms (suits, hunter's garb, the priest's robes). These colours are in opposition to nature and Naumanis points out that the characters "want to compete with nature rather than melt into it." The obvious exception, of course, is Dauka, who in the end runs away to be subsumed by nature in the form of the sea—again, a connotation that has both positive and negative sides.
With a little help from my friends...
In weaving his web of plot strands and symbolic devices, Kairišs draws on the talents of some able collaborators. Particularly notable is Ieva Jurjāne, Kairišs's wife, who designed the sets and found the costumes (not a single item of clothing was made specifically for the film—they were all second hand). Also deserving mention is Artūr Maskats, whose inspiring, ethereal music conjures up the haunting quality that has made other Baltic composers such as Arvo Pärt, Peteris Vasks and Erkki-Sven Tüür so successful. Although a touch heavy in the mix sometimes, the score elegiacally underlines the film's themes of the search for spirituality and the paradox of a happy ending in death.
There are some fine acting performances, too, particularly from the children. Dauka (Dāvis Bergs) was chosen through a competition that attracted 200 schoolchildren, while Līga (Līga Čiževska) was found through a chance encounter with Kairišs on a Latgale road. The rest of the actors were a mix of professionals and Latgale locals.
Chekhov snorts up
Kairišs is obviously a man who likes to rework the same themes over and over again. He is now at work on the script for an adaptation of Tumšie brieži (The Dark Deer), a play by novelist Inga Ābele, who also helped Odiņš with the script for Pa ceļam aizejot. Kairišs describes the film in terms that show a clear continuation from Pa ceļam aizejot:
Tumšie brieži is a story of a dramatic relationship set in a secluded milieu. There is a 14-year-old girl, a wild child, inhabiting the centre of events; there is a herd of deer and mutual friendship within the world of adults. The tragic contrast between nature and people stands above all.
The director also notes that the play has been described as "inhabiting the territory between Chekhov and Strindberg, on coke," although he also stresses that the film isn't about drugs. With the domestic success of Pa ceļam aizejot, Kairišs has announced that from now on he will focus on his work for cinema, and downgrade his hitherto extensive work in theatre and opera. Hopefully, that also means that more of his film work will travel to festivals like Karlovy Vary.
Andrew James Horton
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