'Truth and Justice': Film Review

An old-school epic in the David Lean tradition.

Estonia's newly shortlisted contender in the best international feature film Oscar category is a handsome family saga painted on a grand historical canvas.

Already a record-breaking box office blockbuster domestically, Estonia's official submission in the best international feature film Oscar race jumped onto the Academy shortlist earlier this week, only the second time in history that a film from this small Baltic nation has made the grade. Based on Anton Hansen Tammsaare's early 20th century novel, a pan-generational saga familiar to every Estonian schoolchild, Truth and Justice is deluxe period soap opera at heart. But young writer-director Tanel Toom's handsome adaptation is also finely crafted and superbly acted, a fatalistic meditation on the human condition splashed across a broad historical canvas.

Truth and Justice was made on a government grant of roughly $3 million, very modest by Hollywood standards but a huge sum for a home-grown Estonian feature. Sumptuously shot, it looks like a much bigger budgeted production. Indeed, it feels like the kind of old-school middlebrow Oscar bait that might have scored multiple awards back in the David Lean era, but will likely prove a little earnest and parochial for 21st century Academy voters.

That said, Toom finds universal grace notes in a sweeping rustic epic that has parallels with Thomas Hardy, Marcel Pagnol, Knut Hamsun and Laura Ingalls Wilder. This is not the filmmaker's first brush with the Oscars, having previously earned a nomination in 2011 with his live-action short The Confession. Following festival screenings at Busan and Black Nights in Tallinn, Truth and Justice is set to make its U.S. debut next month at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Spanning the years 1872 to 1896, the story opens with recently married peasant farmers Andres (Priit Loog) and Kroot (Maiken Schmidt) arriving at their new home, Robber's Rise, a ramshackle homestead perched on a low hill hemmed in by marshy woodland. For reasons that are never fully explained, their malicious drunk of a neighbor, Pearu (Priit Voigemast), vows to drive the newcomers away, just as he did with two previous owners. But the young newlyweds prove more resilient than he expects, toiling hard to transform their unlovely patch of earth into a working farm and family home.

As the changing seasons stretch out into years, Kroot gives birth to two daughters, leaving Andres anxiously praying for a male heir to serve as future custodian of the farm. Meanwhile, the feuding neighbors continue their tit-for-tat war. After agreeing to build a shared water drainage channel between the two properties, Pearu repeatedly blocks it to thwart Andres. There are strong echoes of Pagnol's Jean de Florette here, though that was actually published 30 years after Tammsaare's novel. The dispute lands both men in the local courts for the first of many tragicomic legal spats over the passing decades. In the process, the proudly stoic Andres slowly curdles from patient, loving, God-fearing family man to sour bullying patriarch.

Fate eventually gifts Andres with the son he craves, but it also leaves him widowed and increasingly bitter. He takes a second wife, bereaved servant girl Mari (Ester Kuntu), their union attracting much gossip among the local townsfolk. But both Andres and Pearu learn a harsh lesson in old age as their children grow up to reject the rancorous rivalry that poisoned their lives. Eventually, the dethroned King Lear of Robber's Rise is left alone to reflect on all the love and promise he squandered with his stubborn, macho pride. “What's a man's life anyway?” he shrugs. “Just a blade of grass before the scythe.”

Occasionally dragging and repeating itself across its generous two-hours-plus running time, Truth and Justice relies heavily on stock characters and thunderclap melodrama, while some minor subplots and marginal players are too thinly sketched. The book's implied critique of dogmatic religious puritanism also gets a little lost, especially in the international cut, which is 16 minutes shorter than the domestic version. 

Even so, Toom mostly succeeds in breathing lusty life into dusty old material. The castmembers are uniformly strong, particularly Loog and Voigemast, who both pull off persuasive transformations from hearty young pioneers to crotchety old men. Most of all, this visually sumptuous saga is a widescreen sensory feast of the traditional kind, rich in ravishing candlelit interiors, majestic landscapes, soaring aerial shots and heart-swelling musical fanfares. Truth and Justice may be painted with a broad brush, but the canvas is beautifully detailed.

Production companies: Allfilm
Cast: Priit Loog, Maiken Schmidt, Priit Voigemast, Ester Kuntu, Simeoni Sundja, Indrek Sammul, Marika Vaarik, Maria Koff, Risto Vaidla, Ott Raidmets, Loora-Eliise Kaarelson, Ott Aardam
Director, screenwriter: Tanel Toom, based on the novel by Anton Hansen Tammsaare
Producer: Ivo Felt
Cinematographer: Rein Kotov
Music: Mihkel Zilmer
Editor: Tambet Tasuja
Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn

149 minutes