Cinema has the capacity to become a conduit for dreams and nightmares, combining both into something the ancients could have scarcely imagined- the physical manifestation of myth. If critics such as Roland Barthes and Octavio Paz are correct, then the ritual of cinema or television has replaced the pagan rituals of old. Yet the primitive force of myth remains embedded in human expression, no matter if the medium has changed. Estonian filmmaker Rainer Sarnet’s new film, November (2017), is pure myth, a fairy tale lifted from the page and given life by moving images, the reverie of cinematography and the atmosphere of music. It is imagined and produced with a vivid sense of time and place, yet creating an environment outside of time. And like all myths, its grand and magical flourishes are decorations for a story that is simple in its evocation of human feelings, desires and experiences.
Sarnet bases his film on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, Rehepapp, which has apparently not been published in English. It is set in the Estonian countryside in what we can guess is the 19th century, judging by the clothes of the colonizing German aristocrats. The local peasants live in shadowed woods dressed in medieval rags, functioning in a world where Christianity lives melded to ancient paganism. But the supernatural forces in this story are real. The peasant community of the film lives by stealing, and to achieve better results they use creatures known as kratts, which are assembled from various parts (in the opening scene a kratt composed of a horse head and sticks abducts a cow). But in order for the kratt to come to life it must be given a soul by the Devil himself, which means the peasants must bargain their souls. Amid this terrain a love story of tragic dimensions flowers. A local girl, Liina (Rea Lest) loves a local man, Hans (Jörgen Liik). Yet Hans’s affections are captivated by a local baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis). Both will seek to conjure dark forces to attain their desires, like two hearts passing as ships in the night into a terrible oblivion.
November arrives as a film that transcends its medium and becomes a rare vision. It joins a small, select group of recent European films which revive the past through an artistry that is breathtaking. I was reminded of 2011 Swedish-Polish film The Mill and the Cross, in which director Lech Majewski told a story of religious persecution by designing his film as a story taking place–literally–within a 1564 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. By utilizing a painting for environment, Majewski captures the violence of the counter-Reformation through sheer imagery as poetics. Yet Sarnet’s film could also be seen as a darker cousin of the 2015 film Tale of Tales, by Matteo Garrone, which is a series of Italian fairy tales filmed with a visually opulent air yet told with blood-soaked grit. The stories collected in the film, of a royal devouring a heart or a woman given to an ogre, become more than bedtime tales, instead they return to their original seed as interpretations of human passions, violence and folly. November is a masterpiece precisely in this vein of cinema.
Sarnet has created a work of art which envelopes the viewer in a vivid and organic environment. Cinematographer Mart Taniel bathes the screen in a rich black and white defined by beautiful compositions. The film feels otherworldly, yet wholly real. An early set piece is a ghostly scene in which the peasants await the arrival of the ghosts of deceased loved ones. There is no Hollywood trickery employed here, the specters simply appear amid the towering trees, painted white, walking with the patient steps of the departed. Here Sarnet wonderfully builds the bridge of the worlds of this film. The living crosses paths with the dead, now spirit. One of the great, haunting shots of this film is when Liina finds the ghost of her mother, standing alone by a dark tree. Moments such as this are shot with the penetrating reflection of Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, the profiles of faces, the capturing of eyes owes something to Bergman’s The Virgin Spring or The Seventh Seal. Like Bergman, Sarnet is aware that the human face itself can say much without uttering a word.
This is not a slow film, yet it is a meditative one, in the same way that a riveting work of literature will take its time to focus on a moment. November does not use a setting to tell a story, it is obsessed with transporting the viewer into its setting. Notice the sound editing of this film, which is so fine- the sound of rain, the rustle of leaves, the crunch of snow, it is all composed to a degree of pure immersion. A beggar woman laughs and her face could be appropriate for a piece by Hieronymus Bosch. There is a wonderfully Bosch-like image when the peasants survive the plague and they lay in a barn together, on the verge of what appears to be an orgy in the making. Dirty, contorted faces and plague taking on the form of a dark pig, all searing and memorable. The Devil (Jaan Tooming) here is a rotund wanderer who spits and howls, more a joker than a demon. Yet when he seeks his revenge it is quick and merciless. Like Louis Malle’s Black Moon, this is a myth made real by its very design. That too was a movie in which the astounding felt real through a use of nature and atmosphere.
What truly drives this film are the themes carried through by the visual artistry. The screenplay itself is a richly layered interpretation of some very universally simple emotions. Pagan imagery evokes love and hopelessness. Liina consults a witch and seems to travel into the body of wolf, prowling the forest at night while Hans dreams of the Baroness who herself sleepwalks on the roof of a mansion in scenes of hallucinatory power. Both desire the unattainable, so they will seek deliverance by selling their souls. Like true folk art, November uses image and story to express a society’s very structure. Left to scramble for food and shelter, the peasants seek solace in dark forces. The aristocrats have no need for such beliefs. Sarnet brilliantly displays this when the Baroness and her virtual owner, a Baron played with true, quiet, malevolent dismissiveness by Dieter Laser, arrive at church and view the locals carrying out their strange rituals. The underclass lives in a world of magical thinking and hopes in curses, whereas the lords of the land stride and pose in full contentment with material power.
The dividing of worlds is a crucial factor in this film, and visually Sarnet crafts the geography of this film like a master. The world of the poor is draped in menacing shadow, with the casting giving us men of fierce stares, dressed as if the Ice Age never ended. But when the film enters the world of the Baron, sun illuminates the halls of his abode amid clean, white walls. Yet there is an eerie tone in the air. What makes this mood so powerful is that we are aware from the first scenes involving the kratts that Sarnet is not fooling with the audience. The specters of his film are real. Evil exists in various forms but is a true, overpowering presence. Like Robert Eggers’s recent The Witch, it is refreshing to see a director of bold visual style not copping out but rather diving fully into the implications of his world. In The Witch Eggers imagines a family of Puritans alone in the woods and feeling the encroaching presence of a witch. The film hurtles along to a stunning crescendo. With images worthy of Goya, Eggers too evoked a world where a witch’s Sabbath is no mere illusion, and tempting evil will bring about personal cataclysm. Sarnet is equally here basking in pure, unpretentious storytelling. But he is more of a poet, using fantasy and romance to explore the human condition. His aim is illumination, not horror. He is not beyond employing dark humor as well. A peasant double crosses the devil, an old woman wishes for the local witch to take away the local minister’s capacity to function. But this is humor that also captures the melancholy of the damned.
These elements come together to weave a poem of aching force. Sarnet has crafted a true romance here, devoid of the pleasantries and hopeful twists Hollywood would surely impose on this material. The old fairy tales, like the Greek myths, were always aware that unrequited love is rarely wise and more often than not, ends in sheer implosion, in the utter destruction of those involved. Hans seeks the Devil and conjures his own kratt in the figure of a snowman. The kratt can do little to help Hans, except recite experiences it has witnessed of past, doomed romances. This culminates in one of Sarnet’s most beautiful creations in this film, a story involving two lovers riding a Venetian canal. Poetry and image blend here as Sarnet uses the framing of a hand, of lips and a ring dipped into a river, to say everything the section of the film seeks to make us feel. The kratt itself is written as a beautiful conduit for things Hans does not seem to understand. It will attempt to teach him poetry and reveal through words what Hans does not realize he can never receive from (or give to) the Baroness. He worships from afar a woman he does not even know, without realizing that nearby Liina desperately wants him. This is tragedy of indeed, a mythical scale.
In the darkened woods of November, a narrative tradition is kept alive going back to the great Medieval poets. Sarnet links us, the audience, to characters from a distant time through universal sufferings and desires. There is a hint here of what Dante meant when he wrote, “Hate loves and pride becomes a worshipper.” The film concludes in the only way this story can, in the only way it could, carried into its final reverie by the forces called upon by its two lost souls. Denied love, these characters will wander into the soul’s shadowlands, and Sarnet imagines this film’s climax with a truly riveting, visual sense of loss.
Seek this film where you can. I watched it late in the evening, in a small corner of Los Angeles. Rain pelted the streets, and the modern-day hum of cars and lights filled the air as I walked into the theater. Yet Sarnet transported me and the other viewers into another place outside of time. He has weaved a spell of mythological force, using a narrative that is as eternal as our capacity to love in impossible conditions and believe in greater forces to give us meaning. November is timeless and understands that we are all descended from the rites of ages past.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.