SAUNA

3.5 Stars
Year Released: 2009
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 83 minutes
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We can’t help but marvel at a film that succeeds even if ignoring the audience’s need for satisfaction. Some will hold this kind of a work to be distinct in its own right; many others will distrust its creator as someone more concerned with his or her own process than the viewers to whom he sends it.

Consider Tarsem Singh’s “The Fall,” which is undoubtedly one of the most visually fresh pieces of storytelling to appear last year. The film’s whimsical framing story – an injured silent film stuntman concocting fables for a young girl to lure her to steal morphine for him – drops new innovations at each turn, undoubtedly helped by the fact that Singh shot the film in 18 different countries. (Over many years, he copped footage a la late Orson Welles while on hire for top-grade commercial work.) The pleasures for the eye make something of an argument about the cinematic medium: should filmmakers strive to be innovative at any cost, regardless of the viewer’s need for closure – or even clarity? Nearly any seasoned filmgoer who sees “The Fall” won’t deny its brilliance, though many will stamp their feet to stress that the film just does not work. (Film Threat’s own Violet Glaze said as much on air back in ’08.) Meanwhile, others – like yours truly – will argue that the film works in spite of all this.

I won’t grant such acclaim to the Finnish film “Sauna” – it is ably conceived, yet not as innovative – but I will address its stubborn commitment to it own sensibility. Perhaps the same can be said of the granddaddy of Swede cine, Bergman, but “Sauna” – an historical thriller with some devious turns up its sleeve – is more grounded and conscious of genre forms. I credit IFC Films for bringing this to the US through their IFC Festival Direct cable service, along with the entertaining and intriguing Dutch shocker “Left Bank.” I await the genre treats from abroad they will find next.

“Sauna” looks back to 1595 and the tenuous truce between the Swedes and the Orthodox Russians. Finnish brothers Eerik (Ville Virtanen) and Knut (Tommi Eronen), who have seen their lands ravaged, are deployed to demarcate a new border, assisted by seamy Russian troops. The historical details comprise a shameless MacGuffin: the real concern is the darker territories that await for Eerik, whose moral sense has been washed away by the blood-dimmed tides of war. He appears as a harden shell of a man. Traces of an intellect barely register behind his shady person, just enough so that the audience can spot the correlation between him and his brother Knut, a scholar who’s survived the war with his ethics intact. In a nice casting turn, Virtanen’s Eerik resembles a young Max Von Sydow (in service of Bergman), one who avenged the murder of his daughter in “The Virgin Spring”, or as easily embodied a man facing a quizzical Death in “The Seventh Seal.”

The film’s opening pits brother against another when Knut learns that Eerik left a woman locked in an underground cellar. Yet the family strife is just the first step – soon enough the two arrive to an unchartered village set right amid a swamp. The townfolk’s national allegiance is murky too, but not as much as an odd structure that appears to levitate upon the murky waters – perhaps a sauna that should cleanse one’s sins, but moreso embodies them. This squat building – feeling a lot like Stanley Kubrick’s monolith revised as mod piece of anachronism – channels considerable darkness in a fresh representation of it. A floor of bodies materializing in a swamp seems at once realist, as if a piece of fate brought to the eyes of sorrowful Eerik; yet it’s just as much a haunt looming before him – a form of MacBeth’s knife leading him towards descent.

Director AJ Annila (“Jade Warrior”) bends the tone before our eyes, as the characters’ duties to the nation and the future collapse into guttural B-movie terror. We follow his lead and don’t give a damn if it all amounts to nonsense.



Posted on May 10, 2009 in Reviews by
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