Review by Paul McMahon – “The Distracted Critic”
“My attention span isn’t what it should be. As such, I rarely watch a movie from start to finish. If the action drags, if I start to feel antsy, I’ll pause it and walk away. I tally those “time outs” at the end of the column, so you know how often the movie is likely to bore you. That is, if you’re anything like me.” –The Distracted Critic
SAUNA is a Finnish film that intrigued the hell out of me. The trailer was fantastic and ferocious. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zl4NinKU6WA
It’s set in 1595, after a twenty-five year long war between Sweden-Finland and Russia. A border commission from each side is sent to map out the new boundaries of the countries. We open with a fur-wrapped packet floating on a river, which is retrieved by someone in authority. He opens the packet and finds maps and the border contract. Scribbled at the bottom are the words: “Can we be forgiven?”
We flashback eleven days. Knut (Tommi Eronen), walks into a cabin to see his brother, Eerik (Ville Virtanen), murdering the owner. When Eerik asks where he put the girl, Knut says he put her in the cellar. Eerik says the cabin owner tried to kill him, insists he would’ve done the same to Knut. Then he tells Knut to return to the riverbank and tell the man there they’ll be leaving quickly. He says he’ll return to the cellar and let the girl out.
It’s tea time at camp. The Russian leader, Semenski (Viktor Klimenko), tells a story about building a city out of mud. When horses approach, the war-weary men under Semenski’s command start preparing to defend against an ambush. It’s just Eerik and Knut, though, returning from their sojourn related to the new border map. In their tent, Eerik warns Knut not to trust the Russians. They’re more dangerous than they appear. Knut tells his brother that when they’re done, he’ll use his work on this mission to earn a professorial position in Sweden. Eerik is less than thrilled at this.
The men move out, but are soon stymied at the edge of a huge swamp. Semenski doesn’t want to forge through it. He suggests splitting the area in half, right down the middle, and then travel around it. Eerik says he’d only be willing to do that if Semenski signed the entire swamp over to Sweden. Semenski gives a weary smile and concedes that they’ll have to walk through the whole thing. They send most of their entourage, and all of the horses, around to wait for them on the north side. Semenski takes his two closest men and leaves with Eerik and Knut to divide the swamp.
We get a flashback from the cabin, Knut listening to Eerik complain about the glasses Knut got for him. Eerik says he was fine with looking at everything like a fish underwater, but now that he’s grown accustomed to them he can’t function without them. He sees his dependence on them as a weakness. In the cabin, Eerik works himself into a frenzy, sure that he’s been in here before, during the war. He insists there were religious icons around, which would make the owners Russian. The daughter of the cabin owner takes them to the cellar, which is apart from the house and hidden somewhat. They find the icons Eerik knew were there. He leaves Knut with the daughter and takes the cabin owner back to the house. Knut apologizes to her for his brother’s behavior, but then locks her in the cellar to protect her. He promises to return.
Back in the swamp, Knut sees a girl in front of them, watching. She’s dressed just like the girl from the cabin. Meanwhile, Eerik steps into the knee-deep water of a small pond and sees the dead bodies under the surface. He stirs the water with his sword and the vision dissipates. A little while later, Knut corners him and points across the meadow at the figure of the girl. He asks if Eerik can see her. Even with his glasses, Eerik confesses he can’t see that far. Knut tells him he thinks the girl from the cabin followed them. Eerik looks at him sadly and says: “That’s impossible.”
SAUNA is a very subdued film. It’s heavy on atmosphere and tension without a lot of set pieces to rile things up. The performances are fantastic. You really see these guys as soldiers from the 1500s, and all of them are wrapped up in their own little worlds and barely attuned to each other. We know something happened at the cabin, something we’re not shown, and it’s tearing the brothers up emotionally and mentally. Just when it seems that things will have to come to a head, the group wading through the swamp stumbles across a small village of seventy-three people smack in the middle.
Now it’s a game to see which country will claim the area and all its people for tax purposes. Funny thing is, there is only one child in this community, and most of the others are elderly. Also, just outside the village proper, standing in another small pond, is a squat white building with no windows. There is only an open door, which seems to appear and disappear at will. This is the titular SAUNA, a building constructed by monks to wash their sins away. None of the townsfolk will go there.
Director Antti-Jussi Annila uses the wilderness of Finland to great effect here, displaying a land remarkably undisturbed and undiscovered. There’s a lot of talk of discovering new plants and animals, and Semenski is keeping many samples in hopes that something will be new enough to bear his name.
Writer Iiro Kuttner’s script is haunting and truly original. Maybe the themes of whether the worst of us can ever achieve redemption is done a lot, but in this way, in this setting, it comes off as something that’s never been seen before. It builds slowly with tension and dread, keeping you guessing as to where it’s ultimately going to end up, and when you get there… well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
I was impressed. I give SAUNA ~three and a half knives
…and two time-outs.
© Copyright 2017 by Paul McMahon