Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Sarnet doesn't lack imagination and the unsettling mood that pervades the action is maintained throughout."

Gothic grotesques that recall Gormenghast and Terry Gilliam mix with contraptions worthy of the Brothers Quay and absurdist humour redolent of Samuel Beckett in Rainer Sarnet's adaptation of Andrus Kivirähk's Estonian cult bestseller Rehepapp (Old Barny).

Somewhere in the sodden landscape of Estonia, where peasants seem to be eking out a living despite hoarding treasure, the usual rules don't apply. Animism is everywhere, so that the dead are able to walk abroad and humans, if they are willing to make a pact with the devil at a crossroads, can 'buy' a soul for their inanimate objects, known as Kratts - strange mechanicals constructed from hay, knives, bike seats and even a snowman - who must then do their bidding. Despite these pagan rituals, religion is also a force to be reckoned with, although the locals are more interested in spitting out the 'host' for use as bullets than eating it for the sake of their sins.

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Shot is black and white by Sarnet and cinematographer Mart Taniel, the contrast is amped up, so that the whites have a purity, while the blacks an inky depth. The film is full of striking images, whether its the way that the low-roofed hovels seem hardly able to contain the peasants who live within them or a visitation of 'the plague' masquerading as a goat in scenes that are likely to put horror fans in mind of Black Phillip from Robert Eggers' The Witch.

Despite the fact there is an awful lot happening here in terms of characters coming and going, the story is thin, revolving around the unrequited love peasant girl Liina (Rea Lest) has for young buck Hans (Jörgen Liik), who has, in turn, fallen head over heels for the daughter of a local baron (Jette Loona Hermanis). Sarnet nudges at the idea of purity here, in terms of motive - as different as black is from white compared to the usual drivers of the peasants' lives. it's not really enough to sustain the tale, however, which meanders from myth to fairy tale and back again, also featuring a witch, potential forced marriage and even the hint of a werewolf along the way. The Kratts are tantalisingly surreal and you long for more of an exploration of their dangers - as we are told that, if given nothing to do, they can turn on their makers.

The story itself will probably work best for those who are familiar with Kivirähk's novel or the Estonian mythology it draws on. Certainly Sarnet doesn't lack imagination and the unsettling mood that pervades the action is maintained throughout. His world may be strange but it feels true to itself and the Kratts' puppetry slots smoothly - or rather, deliberately jerkily - into place. This is an ambitious but flawed work best enjoyed for its haunting moments or sudden outbursts of pitch black humour than its overall narrative.

Reviewed on: 21 Apr 2017
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A peasant girl's unrequited love plays out against a backdrop of pagan ritual and myth.

Director: Rainer Sarnet

Writer: Rainer Sarnet, based on the novel by Andrus Kivirahk

Starring: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik, Arvo Kukumägi, Katariina Unt, Taavi Eelmaa, Heino Kalm, Meelis Rämmeld, Dieter Laser, Jette Loona Hermanis, Jaan Tooming, Klara Eighorn, Ene Pappel, Ernst Lillemets, Sepa Tom, Tiina Keeman

Year: 2017

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: Estonia, Netherlands, Poland

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