Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Terra Incognito

As far as I know, Sauna (2008, directed by Antti-Jussi Annila) is the first Finnish horror film I've ever seen, so I couldn't tell you if it's a typical Finnish horror film or even if it's a typical Finnish film. The only other Finnish films I've ever seen are a handful of Aki Kaurismäki films, which is probably not a representative sampling. In any event, this film echoes a LOT of other traditions, from Asian horror movies to Eastern European art films, while fully embracing none of them. It's a genuine weirdie in any case.

The story here follows a team of cartographers mapping the new border between Sweden and Russia after the conclusion of the 1590–1595 Russo-Swedish War. The two principle cartographers from Sweden are the brothers, Erik and Knut, each of whom carries with him the guilt of past sins. During the course of the early part of the film, each brother authors new sins to carry with them: Erik lusts after a young girl who has hosted the expedition, while Knut locks her away in a cellar for her own protection from his brother. He leaves her there to die. They wear out their welcome in a hurry. As they trek through the wilderness, Knut begins to see a ghostly figure in the fens and marshes where they're traveling. He's convinced that it's the girl, haunting his every step. He starts to come unglued. Erik is more stoic, but he's lived with so much guilt from the dozens of people he's killed that he sublimates it beneath a hard, hard exterior. Eventually, the party comes to an uncanny village in the middle of a swamp, a village populated with exactly the number of people Erik has killed. The village hosts a sauna, which, according to the local superstitions, will wash away sins. Meanwhile, members of the party are dying in ghastly ways. The village, it seems, will not let its inhabitants go untouched. Both brothers enter the sauna eventually, and confront their own inner darknesses. Erik, for his part, aims at redemption by offering himself to the dark forces here in order to allow the only girl in the village to escape. But he can't escape his own sins.

This all sounds interesting. Hell, it IS interesting. But Sauna is also maddeningly vague about, well, just about everything. It doesn't really explain anything beyond who the characters are and what they're tasked with doing, preferring to allow the viewer to construct their own explanations for the events on screen. This is particularly true of the deranged, completely inexplicable ending. Then again, the film does tell the audience at the outset that the expedition we've been following vanished without a trace before it finished its task. You can't say you weren't warned, I guess. This gives the film a weird Roanoke, Virginia kind of feeling to it in the end, which is an exotic touch of strange.

Regardless of how one interprets the film, it's fascinating for showing a completely unfamiliar time and place, a feeling that's amplified from the filmmakers' choice of a desaturated color palette and a desolate, starkly beautiful landscape. The look of the film has been meticulously crafted. Both Ville Virtanen and Tommi Eronen as our respective brothers look like they were grown for this movie organically. The visuals are all of a piece. So too is the slow burn of its suspense. The fact that this narrative charges into Terra incognito provides its mysteries with an awful sense of discovery once they begin to reveal themselves. This is amplified by their sheer impenetrability. I can't explain what happens at the end of this movie. I'm not entirely sure I want to.

But I can't get it out of my head.

Final Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 37

First Time Viewings: 37

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