Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review – Defenders of Riga

October 13, 2011

Defenders of Riga – Latvia, 2007

One of the odd things about Aigars Grauba’s 2007 film Defenders of Riga is that it has two narrators. On the one hand, the film is narrated by a beautiful young Latvian woman named Elza (Elita Klavina), whose marriage is delayed by Latvia’s entry into the First World War. She provides the emotional impetus for the story, demonstrating just devastating war can be on the deep connection that two people have. However, the film can’t seem to make up its mind whether she’s narrating the events in hindsight or in real time. The second narrator speaks to us at critical moments in history – for example, at the end of World War I and after German troops isolate Riga. This narrative is much more similar to the voices we hear on documentaries from PBS or the History Channel, and if Defenders of Riga succeeded at anything, it was in arousing my interest in seeing just such a documentary on Latvia’s struggle against Russian and German occupation in 1919.

This is not to suggest the movie isn’t worth watching. However, it does imply that the more narrative aspects of Defenders of Riga leave a lot to be desired. The film takes large leaps in time and includes too many characters for audiences to be able to remember each one, let alone develop much empathy for them. This is also a movie that strives too hard to be inspiring and humorous, often within the same scene. Towards the end of the film, a character actually delays a critical battle by asking his commander, “Hey, will this work?” Someone should have asked that about the moment itself.

That said though, Defenders of Riga does many important things well. It accurately depicts the awkwardness that can accompany the end of a war, as veterans return to loved ones that have lost their connection with them. In Riga, we see Elza stare at her returning hero with a look more of bewilderment than joy. It’s as if she’s thinking, “OK, he’s back. Now what?” She even pulls away from his embrace in years, for it no longer does what it once did. It’s a far cry from the more romantic depictions of long-term dedication in films such as A Very Long Engagement, and yet it seems much more realistic. After all, what do you say to the person you’ve been waiting for for three years? How have you been? just seems so inappropriate.

Defenders of Riga also gives viewers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the maneuvering of the German army, led by General Goldtz. He aligns himself with a Russian colonel named Pavel Bermont, and together they use Latvia’s refusal to allow Russian troops to pass through Riga as an excuse to invade the city. In the meantime, Allied powers are apparently standing back, waiting to see which side gains the upper hand. We also see the disillusionment of the Latvian people, some of whom are simply too war-weary to take up arms so soon after coming home. One woman is so concerned about being linked to Latvian independence that she initially refuses to allow the wounded to be brought into her hotel. What she and many others want is a return to normalcy, and perhaps it is easier to talk about giving up liberty if one has not had it for very long. As we see, it’s another thing entirely to actually give it up.

Throughout Defenders of Riga, we return to Martin and Elza, as if saving their love is as important as winning independence for Latvia. For this to work, their relationship must be a lens through which we see the complexities and difficulties of the independence movement. Elza has to doubt its success, only to be won over by Martin’s patriotic calls for freedom. This requires actual dialogue, yet Martin and Elza reconcile during a traditional dance, and no words are actually spoken. And when the two of them actually have a conversation, it is during an ambush and never feels entirely authentic. People like Martin and Elza are not supposed to simply lie down and hold hands in the middle of a battlefield as their countrymen are dying or wounded around them.

Defenders of Riga never truly finds a consistent tone, for it too often fluctuates between drama and comedy, even during moments when comedy seems grossly inappropriate. In addition, the bond between Martin and Elza is never fully established enough for viewers to be able to be whole-heartedly invested in their relationship. However, the film’s political back story and its depiction of the David and Goliath-like struggle that was the Latvian fight for survival are consistenty interesting, and some of the personal stories of the supporting characters are surprisingly moving. I particularly liked the performance of Kestutis Jakstas, as President Karlis Ulmanis, a man being excessively micromanaged by people not necessarily looking out for Latvia’s best interest. And of course, there’s Janis Reinis as Martin. His quiet act of digging the first holes of Riga’s defense is one of the best moments of the film. Problems and all, Defenders of Riga is a movie that is just inspiring and moving enough to make it worth watching. But don’t take my word for it - just listen to the narrators. If they both say it, it must be true, right? (on Blu-ray)

2 and a half stars

*Defenders of Riga is in Latvian, German, Russian, French, and English with white English subtitles. They were occasionally hard to read.

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