(Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

(Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)


2017 Tribeca Film Festival Best International Narrative Feature


Some films that cross our eyes are an exercise of the art form.  They trade tidy entertainment for a celebration of craft.  There are clear pluses and minuses to such an undertaking.  Stripping away conventions left and right to make something wholly unique and downright peculiar, November was Estonia’s 2017 entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.  The experimental foreign film brims with allegory and is strikingly shot.  However, the film’s compelling qualities never seem to match its obscene effort towards the art.

Adapted from Andrus Kivirähk's novel Rehepapp ehk November by writer-director Rainer Sarnet (Where Souls Go, The Idiot), the film’s native country is the backdrop for a borderline chamber piece of embodied symbolism.  November duels with minor classism in the undetermined 19th century, where confrontations occur between the mildly elite that occupy the remnants of a teeming estate and the lesser scroungers of a nearby rustic village.  The poor steal livestock and trinkets for a taste to satiate the absence of culture.  In this desolate setting, the human characters are often incarnating spirits, natural forms, and idols, from werewolves to Satan himself, and also interact with “kratts,” vivified machinations of mundane tools or whirligig scraps with voices and agendas of their own.

Love without reciprocity is the conflict at the center of November and its morbid poetry.  A poor country girl named Liina (Rea Lest) longs to attract the love and affection of Hans (Jörgen Liik) and seeks arcane measures to make that happen.  Aloof in the meantime, Hans only has eyes for the haughty daughter of a wealthy nobleman, and he too desires a mystical shortcut to expedite romantic chance.  The primal urges entertained and risks taken prove challenging and costly for both would-be lovers.

Sarnet’s film has earned a mild pedigree from festival success on the way to becoming an Oscar submission.  In addition to playing the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival, November won the Best International Narrative Feature at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival.  It superiority starts at its black-and-white cinematography from Mart Taniel (1944) that embraces the natural and the surreal with striking detail.  Every flicker and fleck of human and natural grime captured by his multiple camera configurations paint an inescapable tone along with the grungy score from Jacaszek.  Coupled with dextrous prop work and puppetry, the workmanship is as dedicated as the straight and strict performances from the small ensemble as they thickly espouse and emote to a blend of Christian dynamics clashing with pagan forbidden beliefs and temptations.

Nevertheless, that lean strictness and coldness make November an arduous experience to absorb and nearly an impossible film to truly connect with.  The narrative is missing the sweep to permeate in the same way the aesthetics and atmosphere do.  The twisted folklore trying to generate any swoon out of sparse dialogue and sluggish posturing is rudderless and ineffectual.  This constantly portending and heaping forest of bleakness is one for the poets pushing for plainness.

LESSON #1: THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS WITH LOVE-- The central arc of unrequited romance encircles the potential of nearly Shakespearean tragedy.  The film shows two characters with both boundaries to fulfilling their wants and an impatience that only makes their efforts worse.  Proverbial magic may be what you want, but literal magic is not the answer.  Love is the long game.

LESSON #2: THE DEFINITION OF “TOIL”-- If there is a descriptive verb that stands out from the actions and progressions on-screen and in the viewing of November, it’s the word that is defined as “long strenuous fatiguing labor.”  The lifestyle of squalor occupied by the characters/actors, the clear observable difficulty level for the filmmakers to artfully interpret this novel, and the absolute chore of patience to watch this film all exhibit a level of "toil."