Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Excursionist (orig. Ekskursantė) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)   Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing
Forumcinemas.lt listing*
Kino-Teatr.ru listing*

15min.lt (U. Milkintaitė) review*
Bernardinai.lt review*
lritas.lt (E. Zabulėnienė) review*
Obuolys.lt (R. Jaščemskas) review*
The Excursionist (orig. Ekskursantė) [2013] [IMDb] [FC.lt]* [KT.ru]* (directed by Audrius Juzėnas [IMDb] [FC.lt]* [KT.ru]* screenplay by Pranas Morkus [IMDb] [KT.ru]*) is a Lithuanian historical drama that played recently to packed showings at Chicago's 17th Annual European Union Film Festival organized by the Gene Siskel Film Center.  (Seriously, it seemed that 1/2 of Chicago's substantial Lithuanian-American community was present.  And the Consul from Lithuania's Consulate in Chicago said a few words after the showing as well).

The film is set in the early 1950s during the period of mass deportations of Lithuanians from their native country to Siberia.   The film focuses on the story of a 12 year old Lithuanian-girl named Mariya (played by first time actress Anastasija Marčenkaitė [IMDb]) whose father had already been shot by the NKVD before her and her pregnant mother's deportation (in typical "cattle car" fashion) East.

Along the way, Mariya's mother expires as well.  After her mother's body was unceremoniously removed from the train by soldiers at a checkpoint en route, the distraught 12-year-old is helped, arguably pushed out of the still stopped train through a small window/air hole opposite the doors of the cattle car (police and dogs patrolling the train's other door-opening-side) by the other (Lithuanian) passengers.  They probably did this, in part to "help" her, to "give her a fighting chance to survive."  But they also probably did this in good part to simply get rid of her.  The stress of Deportation under such literally inhuman, cattle car, conditions would have been difficult as it is.  To have a hysterical orphaned 12-year-old bewailing the sudden (and total) loss of her mother (her body just ripped from the train at said checkpoint) would have been all but unbearable.

So the other passengers pushed 12-year-old Marija out the backside of the still-stopped cattle car with the words: "God be with you!  Find some way to live!"  And that was that.  The train soon started moving, the dogs started barking, and 12-year old Marija, had still the survival instincts TO RUN into the woods before the train passed away and the police dogs could go after her.

Now how could a 12-year-old survive out in the Siberian Taiga on her own?  The short answer ... she would not have been able to.  SO THE REST OF THE STORY is about A WHOLE LOT OF STRANGERS (MOSTLY RUSSIANS (!) HELPING HER TO SURVIVE AND OVER THE COURSE OF SEVERAL YEARS MAKING IT BACK TO LITHUANIA.  And indeed, some of Russia's MOST FAMOUS ACTORS (notably Raisa Ryazanova* [IMDb] [KT.ru]* and Sergey Garmash* [IMDb] [KT.ru]*) CHOSE to PLAY SIGNIFICANT ROLES in this mostly Lithuanian film about what could only be described as Soviet Russia's shame.

And to be clear, not every Russian in this film was "good."  There were a-holes including a Principal at a Siberian Reformatory School, where Mariya found herself during at least part of her journey.  The Principal did consider Marija, a 12 or perhaps 13 year old by then (and would have been only about 5-6 years old at the end of World War II) a "Fascist," and treated punitively at times sadistically her as such.

But there were also good people, including Baba Nadya (played by Raisa Ryazanova* [IMDb] [KT.ru]*) an old and believing Orthodox Christian woman who first nursed the Catholic 12-year-old Mariya (all Mariya has of her mother is the crucifix of her mother's rosary that she keeps through the whole of the movie) back to health after her daughter's boyfriend (played by Igor Sovochkin* [IMDb] [KT.ru]*) first found her after she had escaped from the train and brought Mariya to her.  And then there is an NKVD officer (played by Sergey Garmash* [IMDb] [KT.ru]*) who uses his position -- he was State Secret Police after all -- to help the girl (again more or less clandestinely) get back to Lithuania.  Why did he do it?  Well, though he was NKVD, it becomes _also_ clear that he had some life experience that made him perhaps more compassionate than others in his position to innocent CHILDREN like Mariya who were in need.

So this is a remarkable film.  It's about the horror of the deportations of the Stalinist Era.  BUT it's also about finding good people, often SURPRISING PEOPLE, in the midst of that horror.

Then from a technical aspect both the cinematography and the gentle if often very, very poignantly sad classical sound track are certainly of the highest caliber.  Westerners often think of Siberia as simply a frozen wasteland.  Actually the vast majority of it is Taiga -- seemingly endless coniferous forest.  Indeed, part of the HORROR of Siberia becomes: HOW COULD SUCH EVIL BE ALLOWED TO TAKE PLACE IN ENDLESS ROLLING FOREST LAND THAT OTHERWISE WOULD HAVE BEEN EXPERIENCED AS BEING SO BEAUTIFUL?

Anyway, I just wanted to cry through almost the entire movie.  What this poor little girl went through, what her family had went through, what millions of others like them went through.  And then yes the existence of people who did try to help.

In the end, the film becomes a Lithuanian/Siberian "Saving Private Ryan [1998]" where "Private Ryan" is 12-13-14 year old Marija.  And yes, it's intended to make one want to cry.

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.  

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