'Scandinavian Silence': Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2019

Courtesy of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
A refined rewind experiment.

Estonian director Martti Helde offers three variatons on the same events in this prize-winning, artfully packaged sibling drama.

Young Estonian writer-director Martti Helde earned glowing reviews and a raft of festival prizes with his visually arresting 2014 debut feature In The Crosswind, which dramatized a brutal true story of wartime ethic cleansing using a series of monochrome tableaux vivants. Mounted on a more modest scale, but similarly striking in look and style, Helde's second feature Scandinavian Silence is an elegant two-hander about mute siblings struck dumb by dark secrets.

Structured as a triptych, Scandinavian Silence replays the same scenario in three different variations, raising questions about subjective interpretation and unreliable narration with its sparse dialogue and Rashomon-style shifting viewpoint. From its self-consciously Bergman-esque title to its ravishing Tarkovsky-level cinematography, Helde's triangular puzzle consistently engages the senses, even if its stylistic brio is not always matched with dramatic substance.

Already released domestically, this Estonia-France-Belgium co-production made its European premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival earlier this month, where it won the Europa Labels Prize, a subsidy package designed to broaden its theatrical reach. Though likely to remain a festival and niche art-house item, Scandinavian Silence is still a work of chilly beauty and lofty intention.

The first chapter opens with handsome ex-con Tom (Reimo Sagor) trudging purposely along a snowy forest road, where his sister Jenna (Rea Lest) pulls over her SUV to pick him up. For the duration of their journey, only Tom speaks, sketching out the pair's nightmarish family background and the violent events which landed him behind bars. Wracked with guilt for not protecting Jenna better from their abusive father, he monologues poetically on murder, revenge and the power of silence as a means of expression.

For the next iteration of the story, Helde rewinds to the same staring point, but this time it is Jenna who talks while Tom silently listens. The dark family history remains but the shifting spectrum of guilt and blame is more nuanced. This chapter also includes a frosty encounter with an older couple at a roadside diner, who first shun the siblings as “whores and jailbirds” before their meeting takes an intriguingly creepy, sexualized turn. Like much of Scandinavian Silence, this cryptic detour is never fully explained but it resonates with the abusive father backstory.

Third time around, Helde skips through a compressed replay of the plot with neither Tom nor Jenna speaking, relying solely on silent-movie gestures and loaded glances right up until a final twist, which lands a little too much like a throwaway joke. After a recursive dramatic cycle that appeared to be building psychological depth and emotional weight, the pic runs out of road in its final act, which plays more like formal experiment than human drama.

But even with this flat payoff, Scandinavian Silence is a generally impressive piece of work, a clever narrative conceit clothed in exquisitely lovely monochrome imagery by cinematographers Erik Pollumaa and Sten-Johan Lill. Stunning aerial tracking shots that follow the course of a river through snowy woods, and a contemplative interlude in which Tom silently communes with giant trees in luminous winter sunlight, almost feel like stand-alone visual artworks. The stylistic influence of Bergman and Tarkovsky is arguably too blatant at times, but generally a welcome sign of a young filmmaker not afraid to stand alongside cinematic giants.

Production companies: Three Brothers, ARP Selection, Media International
Cast: Rea Lest, Reimo Sagor
Director: Martti Helde
Screenwriters: Martti Helde, Nathaniel Price
Producer: Elina Litvinova
Cinematographers: Erik Põllumaa, Sten-Johan Lill
Editor: Jaak Ollino Jr.
Music: Mick Pedaja
Art director: Anneli Arusaar
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (East of the West Competition)
Sales: Three Brothers, Tallinn

80 minutes