Soviet-era film is now a Jāņi tradition

Limuzīns Jāņu nakts krāsā (Limousine the Color of Midsummer Night) is perhaps the favorite film of Latvians. Like the American Christmas tradition of watching It’s a Wonderful Life, it has become a staple on Latvia’s television screens around Jāņi, the Latvian celebration of the summer solstice. Written by Māra Svīre, it is director Jānis Streičs’ best film.

It is a film that can be watched on many levels. At the surface it is a broad comedy with universally recognizable characters and themes that are also uniquely Latvian.

Aunt Mirta (Lilita Bērziņa) wins a car in a lottery and faster than you can say “priekā,” relatives and acquaintances descend on poor Mirta’s house like locust. There’s her nephew (Uldis Dumpis) who, with wife and son in tow, gets off a tour bus in mid-excursion and hitchhikes to Mirta’s house for a visit the moment he hears of her windfall. There’s her former daughter-in-law, with husband and daughter along, who pop in for a visit out of the blue. Even her next door neighbors, hard working and earnest farmers, are suddenly more helpful and attentive. None of this is lost on Mirta and she makes the most of it.

It’s a very Latvian film. There’s a Latvian folk tale about a poor traveler who stops by a farmstead. Being hungry he asks the farmer’s wife for some food and she promises him a meal in exchange for work. The labor is backbreaking, but he does it without complaint. When he finishes, the stingy farmer’s wife tries to renegotiate. Pleading poverty, she offers him some thin soup. He doesn’t complain, but as he sips the watery brew he remarks that the soup is missing something. It needs something to go with the broth. The farmer’s wife apologizes and says she has nothing else to offer. All she has left is an old axe.

The axe will be good, he replies. The farmer’s wife is incredulous, but he reassures her that in his travels he has often had axe soup and its one of the best meals he has ever had. You just have to know how to prepare it properly and it will be as tender and savory as the finest cut of meat. The farmer’s wife, seeing an opportunity to make something out of nothing, drops the axe in the pot. But no matter how long they wait, the axe stays, well, as hard as an axe.

The traveler recalls that the last time he had axe soup it also had some potatoes in it. Maybe that’s what’s wrong? The potatoes tenderized the axe. Suddenly the farmer’s wife remembers that she might have some potatoes. Into the pot they go. The axe still is hard. Maybe it was the carrots? There’s carrots. Cabbage? Here’s cabbage. On and on and into the pot they all go. Of course the axe never becomes any softer, but in the meantime the traveler has himself quite the meal.

Limuzīns Jāņu nakts krāsā is like that folk tale in reverse. It’s the poor old farmer Mirta who exploits the greed of her guests. It doesn’t take long before they are cutting her grass, building her a new cellar and doing all of her cooking and cleaning—all on the chance they’ll be ones to end up with the car.

The film also can be viewed as one of those typical Soviet morality plays about bourgeois values being a corrupter of the human spirit.

However, most importantly, it’s a film that, between the lines, managed to pillory and parody the Soviet system. Where else but in the Soviet Union would an 80-year-old woman who can’t drive end up with a car that she has no use for and doesn’t really want, while everyone else has to scrape and then wait for years to end up with one? Even the title itself is a sarcastic reference to a car that was the Soviet equivalent of a Ford Pinto in a color that can be best described as off-white.

Limuzīns Jāņu nakts krāsā works on all of those levels. Like most of Streičs’ films, it’s about characters and relationships. The film is filled with humor and warmth and great performances. But it is the film’s ability to amuse—while parodying a system that didn’t tolerate being parodied—that is perhaps its greatest achievement.


Limuzīns Jāņu nakts krāsā

Jānis Štreics

Rīgas kinostudija,  1981

Notes: In Latvian. Comedy, color, 79 minutes. Screenplay: Māra Svīre; director of photography: Harijs Kukels; music: Raimonds Pauls; principal cast: Gundars Āboliņš, Romualds Ancāns, Lilita Bērziņa, Olga Dreģe, Uldis Dumpis, Baiba Indriksone, Līga Liepiņa, Boļeslavs Ružs, Ēvalds Valters and Diāna Zande.

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