Blizzard Of Souls

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Blizzard Of Souls
"Strip away the national trappings and this is an old, old story, but director Dzintars Dreibergs, despite working with a tiny budget, tells it well."

For most of its history, Latvia's experience of war has been the same: elsewhere is Europe, other countries fall out, and then lots of soldiers march through it, casually killing Latvians as they go. For much the same reason, however, it's a valuable piece of territory - ease of access and its position between empires has given it abundant trade. This means it has usually been governed from afar by a more powerful country. Blizzard Of Souls reflects on how these scenarios played out during the First World War, and how it proudly - albeit temporarily - achieved sovereign independence.

The story centres on Arturs (Oto Brantevics), a young man who is content with his simple rural existence until burgeoning conflict claims the life of his mother. Eager to sign up and go get the bad guys, he tries to lie about his age and, when caught, is aided and abetted by his father, who has a military past and some consequent standing. He gets a smart new uniform and parades through the town with the other recruits singing Latvian songs, kisses goodbye to his sweetheart, and heads into a conflict for which nothing could have prepared him.

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Strip away the national trappings and this is an old, old story, but director Dzintars Dreibergs, despite working with a tiny budget, tells it well. He uses his camera as if he were a shell-shocked witness to events himself, standing a few metres back from explosions or smoke or the abrupt viciousness of bayonets used on already wounded men. Valdis Celmins' cinematography gives mundane landscapes an epic cast and Dreibergs uses this not to evoke heroism so much as to emphasise Arturs' smallness. The terrified young man seems almost incidental as battle rages around him. Accident as much as thought or training is what keeps him alive.

The film is at its strongest during these early stages, and as it addresses the horrors of war. Inevitably, Arturs is changed by what he sees, and by the gradually realisation that there can be no return to the way things were before. Thrust from one desperate situation to another, he must learn to trust his instincts rather than relying on what he's been taught. like his country, he must learn to rely on being smart rather than strong.

Towards the end, when the focus shifts to Latvia's struggle for sovereignty, the film begins to lose its way. It's Latvia's 2021 Oscar submission and like Leap, China's submission in the same year, it makes the mistake of thinking that what moves a national audience will also move an international one. Most people are ready to support an underdog and wish the Latvians well as they call on Russia to respect their identity, but their struggle is not our struggle, and it just doesn't carry the same weight of meaning. At this stage, the careful styling and ambiguity that were working in its favour give way to a moral certitude which is far less interesting.

Brantevics isn't the most capable lead in all respects but he works well enough as an earnest youth out of his depth, which is most of what he has to do. For much of the duration the focus is on spectacle rather than acting, with Dreibergs fully in command. It's an impressive first feature and likely to be much loved on home ground.

Reviewed on: 09 Feb 2021
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Dramatisation of the autobiographical experiences in the unforgiving First World War of teenager soldier Artūrs Vanags.

Festivals:

Black Nights 2020

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