Review: The Year Before the War
- Dāvis Sīmanis' new feature is a flamboyant, bizarre tragicomedy set in Europe in 1913, rich in surprises and loosely inspired by early silent-era cinema
One of the titles taking part in this year's edition of International Film Festival Rotterdam is Dāvis Sīmanis' The Year Before the War [+see also:
interview: Dāvis Sīmanis
film profile], a Latvian-Lithuanian-Czech co-production set in Europe in 1913. The Latvian director's previous credits include the recent fiction titles The Mover [+see also:
film profile] and Exiled [+see also:
film profile], along with several feature-length documentaries.
Sīmanis, together with writers Tabita Rudzāte and Uldis Tīrons, chooses to tell an incredible story set in the year preceding the outbreak of World War I, in a world that is about to be radically transformed by new systems and ideologies. The whole plot revolves around the journey of a Latvian man, Peter (Czech thesp Petr Buchta), who always claims that his name is Hans, and we initially see him working as a doorman in Riga. His more or less casual wanderings lead him to become embroiled in the revolutionary plans of communists, anarchists, proto-fascists and nationalists. From Riga to Prague, from London to Paris, from Vienna to Switzerland's Monte Verità, and later back to Riga again, Peter/Hans goes on a long, picaresque journey, where he ends up having a strange affair with a disturbing Mata Hari-like spy (Inga Siliņa), being psychoanalysed by a sort of “mad scientist” version of Sigmund Freud (Ģirts Ķesteris), and having close encounters with weird, distorted portrayals of Lev Trotsky (Gints Grāvelis), Marcel Proust (Jānis Putniņš) and Vladimir Lenin (Lauris Dzelzītis), among others. Alongside these past celebrities, the film features a wide-ranging cohort of remarkable character actors, who make their mark with just a few lines or even a simple facial expression.
The general tone set by Sīmanis is one of a bizarre tragicomedy – where irony is at times very subtle, at others very palpable – not exempt from some gruesome details and more dreamlike, disorientating sequences, rich in metaphorical images capable of leaving room for the viewers' imagination. On paper, such a mix may not work and could be thought of as fodder for an overambitious picture; here, however, the Latvian filmmaker manages to find a balanced approach, capable of keeping viewers hooked and telling the story of a conflicted Europe through a distorted magnifying glass. Visually, the black-and-white, chiaroscuro-dominated cinematography by seasoned DoP Andrejs Rudzāts (What Silent Gerda Knows [+see also:
film profile], The Mover) is loosely inspired by the aesthetics of German expressionism and, more broadly speaking, that of early silent-era cinema. The appealing cinematography is enhanced by the audacious editing work by Anna Ryndová, which elegantly heightens the scattered spatio-temporal dimension that characterises this whole piece.
These ultimately prove to be two apt choices, as they intensify Sīmanis’ surreal, distant vision and allow him to be comfortably playful and cruel with his characters. The final result is a noteworthy work, rich in surprises, evil giggles, absurd dialogue and puzzling imagery.
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