To many NYU students, Estonia might feel like a land so removed from the United States that it may as well be a fairy tale. In Rainer Sarnet’s new movie “November,” adapted from Andrus Kivirahk’s novel “Rehepapp,” the nation becomes just that. Set loosely in Estonia during the emergence of the Estonian national identity — loosely around the 1820s after Russia ceded control of the country to the Baltic Germans — the film follows the lives of a handful of Estonian villagers living just below the lavish manor of the local German baron.
Each scene follows what at times feels like a disjointed and purposefully abrupt transition. Few storylines have direct relation to each other. The only real continuous plots are the hijinks of the kratts — working creatures made of farm tools and bones and imbued with demon souls — and the love triangle between the besotted Liina (Rea Lest), her unrequited love Hans (Jorgen Liik) and his unrequited love, the stunning and unattainable baron’s daughter (Katariina Unt).
The film’s black-and-white coloring makes it seem more mythical and otherworldly. Werewolves dart around the chilly Estonian woods, and the devil himself appears as a frazzled Santa Clause-esque man with blood dripping from his lips. Kivirahk’s original novel, known for its wit and playful takes on local folklore, translates well into film format — in no small part because of Sarnet’s screenplay and direction. The storyline, if one could call it that, jumps between moments with the gleeful smirk of someone playing a joke on you just to relish in the confusion on your face.
Still, the lack of a strong narrative frees the film to have fun. Mysterious drama revolves around Liina and the baron’s daughter, with tensions fluctuating from murderous to empathetic to woe-stricken at the blink of an eye. Hans creates his own kratt of snow — a less-advised strategy than the usual choice of scythes, hammers and cattle skulls, as snow melts easily and cannot move to complete the the tasks Hans assigns. Instead, the kratt serves Hans by telling tales of romance and heartbreak that sound like “Romeo and Juliet” if Shakespeare had been a devilishly clever Estonian.
Between the several visits of the plague, love potions made of the enamored’s own feces and aesthetically gorgeous but heartbreaking scenes between lovers, “November” is a marvel of a film. It makes use of silence, snow and emptiness to craft a busy world of demons signed into servitude to help the serfs pressed into service under German barons. Wit is ready at hand, but so is sincerity — in fact, the wit is often so sincere that it is witty all over again.
“November” is strange to say the least, but wonderfully so. It is not a fairy tale, not a legend, not a myth — it is some brow-raising combination of the three.
“November” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival Monday, April 24 and has its last showing on Thursday, April 27.
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