Small-time Latvian thief Margita (Rēzija Kalniņa) and young Pavo (Atis Tenbergs) first meet in a small-town Estonian pub. (Photo from Allfilm)
Labās Rokas (Good Hands), the Estonian and Latvian co-production directed by Peeter Simm, is filled with characters and character, sadness and humor. There’s Margita (Rēzija Kalniņa), a two-bit thief who along with her sister will steal anything that isn’t nailed down. There’s Adolf (Lembit Ulfsak), an engineer in a dying industrial town that no longer needs his skills, and his best friend, Dr. Lepik (Tonu Kark), who performs dental surgery on himself with the help of a mirror but without the benefit of anesthetic. There’s Arnold (Tiit Sukk), Adolf’s son, the town’s policeman whose primary job seems to be to ticket his father each time he catches him speeding. And then there’s Pavo (Atis Tenbergs), a caustic and jaded 8-year-old who seems to be going on 80.
All of their lives become entwined when Margita, after stealing a car with her sister in Jūrmala, gets into an accident and has to flee across the border into Estonia. She reaches the outskirts of the town of Vineeri (Plywood), named after a now non-functioning and shuttered plywood factory, and attempts to steal Adolf’s car while he is taking a swim in a river. As she is trying to get away she notices that Adolf still hasn’t come up for air. Thinking that he is drowning she jumps out of the car and tries to save his life, much to Adolf’s disappointment and surprise. Eventually they end up back in Adolf’s house. When Margita finds out about Arnold the cop, who shares his father’s house, she realizes that hiding in the house of a policeman might be the best way to wait for the heat to blow over.
What ensues is an exploration of character and relationships. Simm weaves a simple story that is brought to life by wonderful performances from his cast. Rēzija Kalniņa is almost perfect as a seemingly amoral thief with no loyalty to anyone or anything, but who once literally walked on glass to prove her love. Lembit Ulfsak and Tonu Kark are perfect as a the quarrelsome and quirky odd couple who have long ago learned to accept each other despite their differences. Tiit Sukk, like Kalniņa, is good as the lonely and morose cop, but at times seems a bit too wooden in his performance.
The true standout of the cast, however, is young Atis Tenbergs. When his real mother (Maija Apīne) is admitted to the hospital, he adopts Margita as his surrogate mother and mentor. Its not a novel cinematic device, but Tenbergs pulls it off perfectly as a child in a world of mixed-up and often childish adults who has to be both a child an and adult.
Labās rokas is also an interesting exploration of the two different national characters of Estonians and Latvians and how they perceive each other. Too often the Baltics are seen as a single entity where the people are indistinguishable from each other outside of their languages and borders. The rest of the world might perceive them as “the Baltics,” but they can be as different from each other as night and day. As Pavo’s mother explains to Margita, she loves the town of Vineeri and its people but she is desperate for a conversation with a fellow Latvian. The locals never seem to go beyond “tere” (hello) and xx (goodbye). On the other hand, the locals perceive the Latvians as “chatty” and “aggressive” and while in public seem remote and cold, on an individual level speak to each other about topics and in an intimacy that most of us are incapable of.
At the heart of it Labās rokas is about individual choices—and living with those choices—as well as loyalty. It is a wonderfully quirky film about wonderfully quirky people who have learned to accept and live with each other. The film has won a few awards on the European film circuit and the Latvian “Lielais Kristaps” for best film. It deserves a broader audience.
Notes: In Latvian, Estonian and Russian (with English subtitles). Drama and comedy, color, 90 minutes. Screenplay: Toomas Raudam and Peeter Simm; director of photography: Uldis Jancis; producers: Artur Talvik and Gatis Upmalis; art director: Ronald Kolman; sound: Ivo Felt; costumes: Ieva Kundziņa; principal cast: Maija Apīne, Rēzija Kalniņa, Tonu Kark, Leonarda Kļaviņa, Tiit Suuk, Atis Tenbergs and Lembit Ulfsak
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