'Miracle' ('Stebuklas'): Film Review | TIFF 2017

Courtesy of TIFF
Not quite a godsend.

The feature fiction debut from Lithuanian female director Egle Vertelyte screened as part of the Discovery section in Toronto.

The fate of a pig farm struggling to make sausage ends meet in 1992 Lithuania, just after the fall of Communism, becomes a rather obvious metaphor for the destructive force of the newfangled ideology of capitalism in Miracle (Stebuklas). This is the first fiction feature from distaff writer-director Egle Vertelyte, who tries to marry the dry and subdued comedy of Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki, from just across the Baltic Sea, with more distinctively local elements and a dash of political critique. The ironically titled film is reportedly the first Lithuanian feature to be selected by the Toronto International Film Festival in over 15 years, but neither the writing nor the filmmaking are sharp or go deep enough to warrant any kind of wider breakout beyond local and festival play.

The dowdy, middle-aged Irena (Egle Mikulionyte) manages a pig farm somewhere in the nondescript Lithuanian countryside, though times are tough and she’s not sure how to stop the business’s steady decline. Like practically everything around her, her position is a holdover from Communist times, which only ended when the Iron Curtain came down a few years prior and the country is clearly having some growing pains adjusting to the new capitalist system. Something else that has seen better times is Irena’s marriage to Juozas (Andrius Bialobzeskis), a good-for-nothing lout who supposedly works at the farm with her. Together they live in a decent apartment she obtained through state intervention, a fact that doesn’t sit well with the other villagers.

When strident Lithuanian-American Bernardas (Vyto Ruginis) blows into town, things start to change. With his red tie and baseball cap, Bernardas looks rather incongruously like present-day Donald Trump and it’s clear he’s meant to be a caricature of blustery, capitalistic excess. He explains, in Lithuanian with a fat (if unsteady) American accent, that he’s come to invest in the pig farm, which stands on land that was owned by his grandparents before the war. But his real motive for digging around on his newly acquired land — rather than trying to invest in modernizing production methods, say — can’t stay hidden for too long, especially because Irena has offered Bernardas the possibility to sleep on their couch since there’s no hotel in town. Juozas is not impressed by Bernardas and with good reason: Not only does his Yankee cool attitude seem to impress his wife but, in the film’s most unashamedly obvious metaphor, the American’s desire to dig up what he believes will give him his biggest return on investment literally destroys the entire pig farm.

The film, in the almost-square Academy ratio, features intentionally somewhat stone-faced performances and uses vintage props and unexpected splashes of color against more realistic backgrounds, which all bring to mind the work of Kaurismaki, whose best films combine bone-dry humor with unexpected heart in places that seem devoid of all hope. But specific scenes, too, feel like they could’ve come from one of the Finnish maestro’s films, such as a bit in which it becomes clear the whole village dislikes Irena when she’s not allowed back into her place in line at the local bank and the villagers close ranks, forcing her to go all the way to the end of the line. The visual punchline is revealed after a cut from inside the cramped bank office to outside, where the line of people waiting stretches beyond the frame. But as executed by Vertelyte, the sight gag remains rather basic and isn’t developed any further. In Kaurismaki’s hands, this kind of setup could’ve landed a belly laugh, but here it’s merely worth a minor chuckle.

Something similar happens in a scene that prominently features Bernardas’ tomato-red Cadillac (of course he has shipped over a U.S. car to 1992 Lithuania; America has the best cars!). At one point, the claxon and window wipers suggest that strange movements are happening inside the car, but since the director and Bulgarian cinematographer Emil Christov opt for a wide shot that shows the entire exterior of the vehicle, including the windshield, we can already see what is going on inside, so the setup is robbed of part of what could’ve made it funny.

Structurally, the feature, which was also written by Vertelyte, is also a bit of a mess, starting almost at the end with a Biblical prophesy — which would make the meaning of the title more literal than ironic — and then circling back to this at the end, even though what has transpired in-between feels hardly connected to the bookending material. There is, however, a nice cameo from Andrzej Wajda regular and Angelina Jolie vehicle Salt co-star Daniel Olbrychski as a kind-hearted priest who has some revelations to make about Irena’s own family history. But here, too, Vertelyte doesn’t properly link this revelation to Irena’s future, leaving the last act feeling a bit like a bundle of loose ends rather than a forceful statement about the messy and uneasy transition from communism to capitalism.

Krzysztof A. Janczak's score, at certain points dominated by the clarinet, similarly isn't sure whether to play up the comedy or the drama or highlight a certain nostalgia or the harsh realities of the past.

Production companies: Inscript, Geopoly, Orka, Wostok
Cast: Egle Mikulionyte, Vyto Ruginis, Andrius Bialobzeskis, Daniel Olbrychski
Writer-director: Egle Vertelyte
Producer: Lukas Trimonis
Director of photography: Emil Christov
Production designer: Ramunas Rastauskas
Costume designer: Monika Vebraite
Editor: Milenia Fiedler
Music: Krzysztof A. Janczak
Casting: Dalia Survilaite, Kristina Kolyte
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales: Wide

In Lithuanian, English
91 minutes