Eastern European Cold War film ‘Isaac’ as precise and mysterious as poetry

Few Americans get to watch films set in the Baltic states over which the West and the former Soviet Union haggled for decades. On that basis alone Isaac is worth watching. It’s also an ambitious piece of work: as precise and mysterious as poetry. The young Lithuanian writer-director Jurgis Matulevicius took his film to Tallinn’s Black Nights Film Festival two years ago in 2019; it streams now as part of Miami Jewish Film Festival’s excellent lineup. Confident and dialectical, Isaac deserves a wide audience who warmed to, say, Toni Erdmann and The Square and especially the inferior Cold War.

In any other film the opening sequence, for which adjectives like “bravura” stand ready for duty, would rank among the highlights. Thanks to their use of single shot, Matulevicius and cinematographer Narvydas Naujalis capture the bedlam of the Lietukis Garage massacre of 1941 when a mob killed as many as sixty Jews in anticipation of the Nazi occupation. The camera takes an out-for-a-stroll approach as it registers the horrors: corpses putrefying in dirty puddles, crowds of angry men and women yelling anti-Semitic obscenities, the general sense of decay. It ends with the death of Isaac (Dainius Kazlauskas) by drowning, rendered with the clarity of a nightmare. If there’s anything wrong with the sequence, blame familiarity. From Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and Black Book to the recent adaptation of The Painted Bird, realistic depictions of the Holocaust follow similar beats.

But Matulevicius is just getting started. Dissolve to 1964. Returning to Lithuania after American exile, writer-director Gediminas (Dainius Gavenonis) earns the kind of welcome reserved for war heroes. The Soviet puppet regime smells a propaganda victory, which doesn’t stop them from eavesdropping on him through the use of bugs. Taking advantage of his clout, Gediminas will make a film about the Lietukis massacre as his next project. Close friend Andrius (Aleksas Kazanavicius), a crime scene photographer, doesn’t see the point. Also, the suspicion that Gediminas and Andrius’ wife Elena (Severija Janusauskaite) might be cuckolding him darkens his thoughts. Meanwhile an ambitious KGB officer assumes Gediminas might have been at the massacre — how else explain the authenticity of the picture? With floppy hair, hollowed eyes, and ever-present cigarette, Gediminas looks like he’s posing for his own dust jacket photo; Gavenonis gives him the air of one of those Eastern European writers with whom American intellectuals — the last gasp of the Stalinist left, say — might’ve read in translation. On the set he’s in command. He drops remarks like, “Let’s try to maintain the observer’s perspective” and the crew and cast nod as if they understood. He also follows the time-honored tradition of playing the director who berates an actress for violating a code of authenticity or something for not appearing in the nude.

The fluidity of Matulevicius’ tracking shots gives Isaac its whirring urgency. At times the camera watches with the impartiality of a judicial panel. Too impartially. He thinks in visual terms, and like many fledgling artists he is the sum total of his influences. The parties in ruined homes have Fellini on the brain. When the camera ogles abandoned domestic spaces where they’re apt to sport weeds sprouting through bath tile, we could be in a fizzier replica of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Shot in color and black and white, with switches happening arbitrarily, Isaac disrupts notions of temporal normality. Are we watching the film-within-the-film about the massacre or the massacre itself? Is it 1964 or 1941? (The fact that the Lithuanians in 1964 drive the same dilapidated jalopies complicates matters). Why does Joy Division-indebted post-punk blast non-diegetically? These games are fine. Matulevicius however indulges the KGB subplot; here’s another ninety-minute film attenuated into a hundred-minute one. But the last sequence, in which the uncertainty of the reality of what we’re watching melds with Andrius’ desperation, is the grace note Isaac‘s been after.

Isaac is streaming as part of Miami Jewish Film Festival.

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