QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
A new teacher has arrived to start working in the village school. He is a notorious journalist and poet who made a name for himself in the capital. Although shy and sickly-looking, he still maintains an aura of fragile elegance. Quietly, he walks with fugitive eyes, like the man with a guilty conscience. Julia, an old classmate of his, happens to be working at the school’s library. When they encounter by chance for the first time in years, she dismisses him as a coward, a hack writer, who, in her eyes, is too comfortable with the state authorities guilty of having deported her parents to Siberia. Having feelings for her, he is sad to see that her blood boils at the sight of a Soviet propagandist, and he is not surprised to discover that she is a member of the Resistance.
The year is 1947 in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic as the land is ravaged by guerrilla warfare between the Resistance fighters of the Dainava military district and the Red Army. The poet, Kostas, is a morally dubious character: he keeps switching sides, from Red Army apologist, to anti-Stalinist resistance fighter. His ethical movements are so swift that one doubts whether he has any solid ideology of his own. The film’s tension is thus born out of this sense of never knowing exactly what our protagonit’s real views are. To some he shows fragments of his anti-Stalinist poems he walks around with. While conversing with the leader of the Dainava platoon, whom he soon becomes affiliated with in friendship, he claims he writes poetry for himself, and then just adds communist jargon, like the words ‘Soviet’, ‘Lenin’, ‘revolution’, ‘socialism’, etc… It works, he claims. But soon enough, the game of permanent defection ruled by his instinct of survival is shattered when he is forced to espouse one side over the other, having to determine who his loyalty truly lies with.
This slow-paced but stunning new historical drama comes to us from Lithuania by the duo of first-time collaborators Giedrius Tamosevicius and Vytautas V. Landsbergis. While Landsbergis is known for directing documentaries, The Poet marks director Tamosevicius’ first forray into directing. Shot in gorgeous celluloid colour photography, The Poet, as the title may suggest, is a meditation on the role of the artist in times of conflict, on the power of the aesthetic in a totalitarian state, as it becomes a tool utilised, depending on the dispatchers, for propagandistic ends, or for liberation. In such contexts, art is relentlessly manipulated to convey state-mandated ‘truths’, all artists becoming political messengers by default, members of a bribed intelligentsia enslaved by an image-making machine hellbent on plastering the failed social order with the illusions of utopia.
The eye for detail is splendid, with costumes, locations and sets all contributing to the creation of an immersive journey back in time. Violence erupts here and there in arresting set-pieces where tension mounts in high degrees. And as armed conflicts develop, the poet and his art are increasingly out of place. Indeed, Kostas is viewed with highly suspicious eyes, from all sides. A particularly ironic scene shows a radio presenter affirming that the propaganda poem ‘All of Lithuania’ is not what it seems, for if one takes the word ‘Soviet’ out of the text, the poem becomes entirely different, it may even be suggesting other, less ‘correct’, ideas. Under scrutiny, Kostas’ lack of efforts to produce any writing anger his supervisor, who suggests that he should write revolutionary poetry for children. ‘Common in form, but with socialist content’, the man in uniform orders.
Filmmakers who focus exclusively on representing artists and their creative lives often indicate an unhealthy obsession with themselves, as is the case with auteur European cinema which can sometimes present directors wallowing in self-satisfaction. Here, on the other hand, we are given an honest perspective on the artist whose portrait is brushed with a refreshing touch of scepticism. Indeed, the film tarnishes the idealised image of the artist, for Kostas is, simply put, a coward who bounces from one side to the other, an animal only looking for survival. In this sense, the film reminded me of Betolucci’s The Conformist (1970), although the morals of our protagonist remain ambiguous for the majority of the film’s running time. After the final outburst of violence occurs, it is with shock that viewers will leave cinema venues. I hope to see The Poet gaining wider distribution and winning awards soon, for it is an imposing addition to an already-brilliant catalogue of historical Baltic cinema.
The Poet has just premiered at the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival as part of the Baltic Competition.