Review: The Eternal Road
by Fabien Lemercier
- Antti Jussi Annila’s dramatic fictional film, nominated to represent Finland at the Oscars and starring Tommi Korpela, tells the story of an overlooked period of history
"From now on, you will go where I tell you to go and you will do what I tell you to do." It's an incredible story, inspired by true events, about a man caught up in ideology, borders and historical upheaval that the Finnish filmmaker Antti Jussi Annila focuses on in his third feature, The Eternal Road [+see also:
interview: Antti-Jussi Annila
film profile], which has already won numerous awards in Finland (six Jussi awards in 2018, including Best Film and Best Director, and a nomination to represent Finland at the 2019 Oscars) before making its French premiere in competition at the 19th Arras Film Festival.
Spanning a seven year period, from 1931 to the winter of 1938, the plot – devised by the director with Aku Louhimies and novelist Antti Tuuri (author of the bestseller that inspired the film) – focuses on an exciting and entirely unknown period of history. As the economic depression hit the Western world, Stalin invited the international proletariat to join the Soviet Union and 10,000 people (including more than 6,000 American and Finnish people) responded to the invitation, leaving the United States and Canada in the hope of a better life in the Soviet Union. An amazing exodus that populated several community farms in the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in an international climate fuelled by the virulent confrontation between communists and their opponents.
Jussi Ketola (the charismatic Tommi Korpela) – a worker who returns to Finland after building skyscrapers in New York – is plunged right into the heart of this ideological war. Taken from his farm and family by armed members of the far-right Lapua movement one night because he is suspected of socialism, the sturdy Jussi escapes death by secretly crossing the Soviet Union border, where his captors were hoping to send him, on what was then known as the "Eternal Road." Well cared for in Petrozavodsk, Jussi falls into the hands of internal security forces (the GPU, which the becomes the NKVD) and Kallonen (the excellent Hannu-Pekka Björkman). Suspected of being an American spy (especially since he was forced to fight on the White side in 1918), he is prevented from returning to Finland and forced to prove himself to the Soviet Union by snitching on a communal (Christian) farm, where a hundred people from North America are now living. Officially declared dead back in Finland (which he is totally isolated from due to Soviet censorship) and renamed Jussi Kari, he begins a new life in an attempt to preserve his integrity and starts another family with Sara (Sidse Babett Knudsen). But the struggle is far from over, what with Kallonen's blackmail and the constant danger of the Soviet Union's ever-changing doctrinal policies...
Starting almost like a western, The Eternal Road focuses on an incredible individual's destiny, caught up in the spiral of historical unrest. Adopting a defined rhythm in contrast to the story's many twists and turns, the film avoids slipping into a melodrama and maintains a good balance between the progression of time and the need to root the character in his ambiguous deprivation of freedom. Making use of a fairly mainstream style supported by some quality photography by Rauno Ronkainen, the feature is obviously a denunciation of Soviet power but has a romantic feel to it, allowing the film to escape a purely historical-political-ideological genre and succeed in developing an uplifting (quasi-lyrical) human dimension and a sequence of striking events.
(Translated from French)
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