Having failed her audition, Ilze (Iveta Pole) stares into a mirror and considers her future.
Juris Poškus’ debut full-length feature film Monotonija (Monotony), the Perspectives Award winner for first- and second-time filmmakers at the 29th Moscow International Film Festival, and a nominee for best full length feature film in this years Lielais Kristaps, can be best described as a Latvian Dogme film as done by the English director Mike Leigh.
The focus of the Dogme film movement, headed by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in the mid-1990s, was to return to a more naturalistic style of filmmaking, one free of special effects, artistic flourishes or genre. It produced such diverse and notable films as Søren Kragh-Jacobsens Mifune, Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. Leigh, the director of respected films as Secrets and Lies, Naked and Life is Sweet, is known for an improvisational style that relies heavily on his actors to create character, improvise dialogue and develop the plot. While Monotonija doesn’t exactly reach the lofty standards set by the aforementioned films, it comes close and, if nothing else, establishes Poškus as a talent to watch on the Latvian film scene.
The film is an improvised collaboration between Poškus, director of the 2003 Lielais Kristaps winner for best documentary for Bet stunda nāk (But the Hour is Near), and actors from Jaunais Rīgas Teātris (the New Rīga Theater). They started out with only one precondition. Each character in the film needed to have a dream. “We wanted to make a movie about everyday banality where there is no big story. We just wanted to show (a) small guy story that usually (is) not being shot in movies,” Poškus said at the Moscow festival. What results is the story of a woman from a small Latvian village who leaves the routine monotony of small town life for what eventually turns out to be the routine monotony of the big city.
As the film opens Ilze (Iveta Pole) is part of a crew of cannery workers who still use old fashioned methods to catch fish. As we follow Ilze through her daily routine we are introduced to a village where life and time seems to have stood still. It’s a place where people still chop wood by hand and have to use that wood to heat their houses. It’s a place where people still get their milk straight for the cow and rely on horses as their beasts of burden. It’s a drab and grey dead-end place with little future or promise for the young.
Ilze comes across a newspaper advertisement for an open audition for a film shooting in Rīga. After mulling it over with her boyfriend Ojārs (Varis Piņķis), Ilze leaves him and her village behind for a shot at the big time in the big city. Arriving in Rīga she moves in with her cousin Linda (Madara Melberga), fails the audition, has a fling with Archie (Artuss Kaimiņš), reconciles with Ojārs, breaks up with Ojārs, finds a new job and, in short, falls into the routine monotony of big city life.
Monotonija‘s greatest strength is in capturing the zeitgeist of Latvia as it continues emerging from the shadow of the Soviet Union and into independence and the present of the European Union. It’s a place where the young often find themselves with few options and where the future always seems to lie elsewhere. For those growing up in the rural areas it’s in the big cities. For those who are already in the big cities it’s in Ireland, and Germany, and the United States. It’s a country whose people seem to be trapped in a vicious cycle where they are always searching for that greener grass and that greener grass is always just slightly out of reach.
Poškus’ documentarian’s eye serves him well and allows the actors to disappear into their characters. When it works, like during the opening sequence when we are introduced to life in Ilze’s village with virtually no dialogue, we are treated to moments of movie magic where the line between fiction and reality blurs. When it doesn’t work, like during Archie’s exercise at self-absorbed and bad joke telling, it feels forced, artificial and, well, self-absorbed. Overall, Monotonija is an interesting film filled with talented, if sometimes spotty, performances that gives us a glimpse into the present day lives and experiences of Latvian youth.
Juris Poškus, director
Fa Filma, 2007
Notes: In Latvian with English subtitles. Feature, 93 minutes, in color. Cast: Iveta Pole, Varis Piņķis, Artuss Kaimiņš, Andis Strods and Madara Melberga; camera: Andrejs Rudzāts, Stefans Doičmans and Juris Poškus; sound: Ernests Ansons; set designer: Ilva Kļaviņa; costumes: Ginta Vasermane; editors: Liene Bāliņa and Uģis Grīnbergs.
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