Trapped, as if by accident

Laura Šimkutė
2020 June 30 d.

The manifestation of indecision – this is how I would like to describe the impression left after the premiere of the film “Nova Lituania” directed by Karolis Kaupinis, which opened Lithuanian cinemas after the lockdown. Filmed in black and white tones, in narrow shots that give the impression of claustrophobic being, the film speaks of indecision on several levels – from personal to state-level critical decisions. This is not a historical lesson about Kazys Pakštas’ ideological joke – to move Lithuania to Madagascar or another free land (as it may seem at first glance), but rather an impression inspired by the chosen circumstances of the time. 

Karolis Kaupinis in “Nova Lituania” surprises with the maturity and capacity of work – you wouldn’t even tell that this is the first feature film of the auteur. The film that was presented at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival and was supposed to appear at the “Kino Pavasaris” film festival, is characterized by attention to detail, slow, contemplative pace, and adherence to the aesthetics of the depicted era. Lighting and mise-en-scenes occasionally create an authentic visual experience – feeling like you’re watching shots from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Just with a contemplative charge of Lithuanianism and existential fear. 

The plot and its profound meanings are described by the phrase uttered several times from the lips of Feliksas Gruodis (played by Aleksas Kazanavičius) – the equivalent of Kazys Pakštas: “emptiness attracts fullness”, which describes the diffusion process. Whether it be direct considerations on the threat to the state or a definition of an unhappy, constant self-nonfulfillment and meaningless existence. The threats to the country speak like a metaphor also about the failures and misunderstandings of personal life. While land is taken from Lithuania due to the inability of the President (played by Valentinas Masalskis) to make important political decisions, Gruodis feels like a stranger in his home – his wife (played by Rasa Samuolytė) reproaches him for the exotic plants that have cluttered the whole room; visiting wife’s mother (played by Eglė Gabrėnaitė) starts taking everything under her control. The only person who begins to understand him seems to be the former prime minister, who was appointed bank manager (played by Vaidotas Martinaitis) after a heart attack, who is suffering from some kind of anaemia. He is able to put words together and create an image perfectly, but when necessary to take effective measures or essential decisions, he freezes and takes a neutral position.

“Nova Lituania” is full of tasteful and cold irony. The characters seem to be trapped in the shots – between the frames, between the plants, between the piles of paper, and the shots by the cinematographer Simonas Glinskis, as if cut, only reinforce this impression – there seems to be no way out in the world created by the film. The director does not turn the characters into objects of ridicule, but rather by combining elements of the absurdity that accompanies their lives with internal tragedy, creates a possibility to look at the presented situations from the point of view of an outsider, which allows to maintain the appropriate distance and have a laugh at the occurring situation. At the president’s desire to build as many majestic buildings as possible to show the nation that something is being done. At the impressions after the meeting on joining the Soviet Union, which focused on the night banquet with tables covered with loads of salads and the pouring of vodka. The threat is always somewhere nearby, and Gruodis is right – the principle of diffusion also applies to states. 

The role of Feliksas Gruodis reveals the creative possibilities of Aleksas Kazanavičius – he often has to play tragic figures, laden with melancholy and misunderstanding. In “Nova in Lithuania” he acts quite sparingly, building the character from the fast, confused parlance, body language that points to anxiety and fear, but does not exaggerate or hyperbolize. Again, it’s hard to believe that “Nova Lituania” is Kaupinis’ first film, because the team of actors gathered is exquisite, literally. Valentinas Masalskis, Eglė Gabrėnaitė, Vaidotas Martinaitis, Rasa Samuolytė – well-recognized faces in cinema and theatre, legends who are able to enchant the viewer just by their presence (and most of them played in Krystian Lupa’s theatre play ‘Heldenplatz’, which in a certain way relates to this film – both thematically and in terms of the specific tone and atmosphere). 

The director does not offer any solution in the film – the ending is unexpected (because it seems that the film still has to continue), and leaving many questions – the impression is, as if a full stop was placed in the middle of a sentence. This enhances even more the irony and tragedy of the characters and the story itself – no one has been able to do anything, so events are moving as if nothing has happened, but in a bad direction. In the aesthetically refined images, it is revealed how the importance of external image of a personality destroys what has taken huge efforts to build. The state is collapsing, everyone knows it, but no one can say the fact in words. Smartly contrived. And also very applicable for today and the current climate, as if by accident.