Magda (Aurēlija Anužīte) and Juziks (Renārs Kaupers) spend a quiet moment on Midsummer’s Eve, hours after an ex-KGB agent nails Juziks’ hands to a cross. (Photo by Atis Ieviņš)
It is not often that I feel I have to watch a film more than once. Not because I missed some important plot point, but because I am not sure I liked or disliked the film. In the case of Vecās pagastmājas mistērija, I am still not sure. The films of Jānis Streičs have that effect on me.
Vecās pagastmājas mistērija (The Mystery of the Old Parish House) is loosely based on real life events that took place in Krimulda, Latvia. It tells the story of an aging KGB agent (Eduards Pāvuls) who is forced to live the rest of his life in a house in whose basement he had tortured and murdered people during the summer of 1941. Yet, the film itself is really about much more than that. It is about filmmaking and contemporary life and the notions of guilt and responsibility.
The film is told in three parts. The first, "Mea Culpa," is a film within a film. It is about the screening of the KGB agent’s story. In the film within the film, the KGB agent hires two construction workers (Renārs Kaupers and Andris Bērziņš) to brick up the door to the basement to prevent the ghosts of all those he had killed from coming after him. As the two workers discover the true nature of the job they resolve to avenge all those who had died by killing the Chekist, but eventually end up saving him from killing himself. Unfortunately, no one, other than the director (Artūrs Skrastiņš), likes the finished film and it is decided that additional scenes need to be shot to improve it.
The second part, "Agnus Dei," is about the shooting of an additional horror scene in which the ghosts, accompanied by a spectre of Jesus nailed to a cross, chase the Chekist. Unbeknownst to anyone, one of the people hanging around the shoot—a filthy, drunken bum looking for a free drink—is the real-life KGB agent. During a break in the filming, while no one is watching, he nails the actor (Kaupers) playing Jesus to the cross.
The last part of the film, "Tuba Mirum," is about the relationship between the young actor Juziks (Kaupers), the film’s producer, Hugo (Ivars Kalniņš), and Magda, the woman they both love (Aurēlija Anužīte).
It all comes to a head as the sadistic producer tries to rape Magda, Juziks comes to her rescue and—with the help of the ghosts of the victims of the old parish house—they triumph over all.
The major flaw of Vecās pagastmājas mistērija is that so much of the story is dependent on the fact that the film within the film is supposed to be flawed and we spend too much time watching a bad movie being made. It’s not that this is a bad idea. Films about bad films are not a new genre. I can think of two examples, Ed Wood and Living in Oblivion, that worked. However, neither of those films tried to focus on anything other than the basic premise. Streičs tries to reach far beyond that by also making Vecās pagastmājas mistērija about the true-life events of what happened to Latvia under Soviet occupation and all of the real and imagined scars that they left on the Latvian psyche. If he had focused on either story the film would have been much stronger. By trying to combine the two he succeeds in telling neither.
This is not to say that Vecās pagastmājas mistērija is a bad film. Many parts of it work and others are downright profound. Streičs’ combination of mysticism with realistic themes and execution show a great deal of talent and depth. The three parts all complement each other. You have layers upon layers of symbolism here. The real-life events are often more absurd and surreal than their celluloid representation. Reality and fantasy blur and complement each other to the point where you can’t tell them apart. All in all, while some of the parts might not work, the sum is greater than the whole.
Vecās pagastmājas mistērija
Rīgas kinostudija, 2000
Notes: In Latvian with English subtitles. Drama, color, 110 minutes. Screenplay: Jānis Streičs; director of photography: Harijs Kukels; music: Mārtiņš Brauns; set design: Ieva Romānova; principal cast: Aurēlija Anužīte, Andris Bērziņš, Olga Dreģe, Ivars Kalniņš, Renārs Kaupers, Eduards Pāvuls, Inese Saulīte and Artūrs Skrastiņš.
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